Respond Instead of React

Maybe you’re A very patient person who responds calmly in almost every situation. You don’t get upset no matter what your students say or do. If that’s you, you probably don’t need to read any more. Just go on with your peaceful day, smiling beatifically at me as I stomp down the hallway, fuming about some crazy thing one of my students just did.

My actions seem almost instantaneous and involuntary, and I react (like a chemical reaction) instead of responding (like a reply to a greeting.)

Watch Respond Instead of React on Awesome Teacher Nation TVLuckily, even those of us lacking superhuman patience can learn to respond more and react less when we’re angry. Here are a few suggestions.

1 – Plan your response ahead of time. Think about a recurring situation where you tend to respond with anger. Write down what you wish you had said or done last time and picture yourself saying and doing those things next time. You might even rehearse. It’s especially powerful to actually practice in place, such as in your “teaching spot.”

2 –  Be conscious of how you tend to feel before, during, and after upsetting events. How does your body feel? What kinds of thoughts do you think? For instance, when I’m angry I usually feel a heavy stomach, heat on the back of my neck, tense shoulders, and clenched teeth. I think things like “here we go again” and “you better not mess with me.” When I notice myself starting to feel these sensations and think those thoughts, I know an angry reaction is likely unless I can shift to my planned response or give myself time to cool off.

3 – Try to notice patterns, not just in the “trigger moment” but before it happens, too. For instance, I am 2.7 million times more likely to react in anger if I’m tired or hungry. So I make an effort to get a good night’s sleep before teaching and to eat healthy snacks throughout the day.

4 – Practice positive self-talk before, during, and after upsetting events. Be gentle and forgiving with yourself. Remind yourself that you are learning, growing, and getting better.

Even those of us who aren’t super patient can learn to respond instead of react. It’s not easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But it’s totally worth it.

Now go create a great day for yourself and your students!

Katrina Ayres, PositiveTeachingStrategies.com

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Thanksgiving Amnesia

Thanksgiving Amnesia – it’s going to happen, so you might as well plan for it.

I looked around at the chaos in my room with disbelief. What had happened to my class?

In September and October I spent weeks teaching my class how to be successful students. By November we had routines for everything.  Transitions were smooth. The noise level was manageable. The students could work in groups without fighting. And they turned in their work most of the time with their name on it!

After Thanksgiving I was ready to jump back into the curriculum exactly where we left off, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead I had to break up arguments, remind students to raise their hands, chase down homework, and wait for it to get quiet. Transitions took forever. Tardiness was rampant. Everything seemed to take longer than I expected.

Thanksgiving Amnesia – it’s going to happen, so you might as well plan for it. During Thanksgiving break, your students will forget everything they have learned so far this year, including every academic thing you have taught them, plus how to put their name on their work, where to turn in homework, and how to work with a partner. (This is only a slight exaggeration.)

Don’t do what I did. Don’t plan a lot of fancy lessons for the week after Thanksgiving. Instead, set aside ample time for review, both of academics and classroom routines. Before you know it, your students will be back up to speed, and you’ll be able to roar through the winter.

Now go create a great day for yourself and your students!

Katrina Ayres, PositiveTeachingStrategies.com

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How to Control Your Temper

Teachers are human, and humans get angry. When you’re dealing with students, parents, and possibly administrators and colleagues who are experts at pushing your buttons, it’s inevitable. Most of the time, we can deal with it pretty well, but what about if you are not just angry, but furious and in danger of losing it entirely? What then?

Yelling, Throwing Things, and Getting Physical is a Bad IdeaI think we can all agree that yelling, throwing books, breaking things, punching walls, and getting physical with students will only lead to more problems. And of course you would never do any of that if you were calm.

The problem is, in this moment of rage you are not thinking rationally, if indeed you are thinking at all. Your head is buzzing, your vision has narrowed to a little pinprick, your teeth are clenched, and all you can hear is your pounding heart. This is a true emergency, and what you need is an emergency plan.

Emergency plans need to be put in place before there’s an emergency. You think about what you can do to minimize damage and keep everyone safe. You have a backup plan and a way to get help, and you practice it ahead of time. Once you have a plan, you no longer have to make decisions during the emergency. You just follow the plan.

Watch How to Control Your Temper on Awesome Teacher Nation TVWhile creating your plan, be sure to take into account how you will de-escalate yourself. Some common ways are breathing, drinking water, clasping your hands behind your back, and so on. Also think about how to escape the situation gracefully. I like to tell the student I can’t talk right now and then go to my desk or step out into the hallway.

You might also find it helpful to have a trusted colleague you can call for help. That colleague can take the student away for a minute or two, or take over your class while you go to the bathroom or go to the drinking fountain.

Even if things don’t go perfectly, you will have a much better chance of success if you have planned ahead. So go ahead, take a minute and think about what your best self would do in that situation. And just know that no one is perfect, and everyone gets angry – even teachers.

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Why Threats and Punishments Don’t Work

My second grade teacher took the authoritarian approach to classroom management. She had lots of rules and lots of penalties when the rules weren’t followed.

For a long time I lived in fear of getting in trouble. The threat of having to stay in at recess and write sentences was enough to make me stop doing whatever fun thing I was doing, such as making fingernails out of Elmer’s glue.

But then one day it happened. I got the penalty. I had to stay in at recess and write sentences. And guess what? I realized it wasn’t the end of the world. Sure, I would rather go to recess, but staying in wouldn’t kill me. In fact, I actually like writing, so it really wasn’t that bad.

What Happens If I Don’t?

After that I started weighing the consequences of my decisions. I started asking (either out loud or to myself) “What happens if I don’t?”

If I was late to class I would have to write the sentences. But my friend had a new toy that I wanted to play with before school. Which was worse, not getting to play with the toy, or having to write sentences? Hmmmm.

Bigger and Bigger Threats

My teacher noticed her consequences weren’t working as well anymore, so she upped the ante. Now I would have to miss TWO recesses. Then THREE. When that wore off, she threatened to call my parents, which worked for awhile. Then she tried to force me to do something I thought was totally stupid and wrong. She told me I had to do my assignment over again, because I colored the sky gray instead of blue. And any fool knows that the sky isn’t blue in November in Portland. It’s gray.

At that point, I decided I wasn’t going to comply, and I didn’t care what she did to me. I decided I would rather die than lie about the color of the sky, and I felt I was justified in taking my stand. She had just lost control of me, because I discovered that I always have a choice. If I want to do something, I will do it and if I don’t, I won’t.

This is why, as teachers, we look weak when we resort to threats. Sure, there may be a surge of power for a minute or two if the threat initially works, but if that’s our only strategy, it will eventually fail.

So What Do You Do Instead?

7 Things You Can Do Instead of Threatening a ConsequenceTell the truth. Acknowledge that students have a choice, and help them make good decisions. Let them know the reasons behind what you are asking them to do. Build a positive relationship with your students so they will trust you and do what you ask. Help them feel great when they make a good decision. Make sure any consequences are logical, reasonable, and teach a lesson instead of merely causing pain and suffering. Listen to them. Maybe they had a good reason for making their choice. Or maybe they didn’t. Either way, help them clarify their thinking so they can make a better choice the next time.

What have you noticed about threats in the classroom? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to share either by email, or in our Awesome Teacher Nation Facebook group.

Now go create a great day for yourself and your students!

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How to Be a Confident Teacher

This week’s Sanity Boost is in answer to a question that came in as an anonymous response to last week’s survey about topics to include in my upcoming book. If this is your question, THANK YOU for sending it!

Question: One thing I see over and over is students honing in on insecurities of new teachers. So, how do you feign confidence in your own classroom?

Answer: You don’t have to be a new teacher to feel insecure. All of us have felt that squishy nervous feeling in our stomachs that happens whenever you are in a situation you’re not quite sure you can handle. Your armpits and hands dampen. Your mouth gets dry. Your heart pounds, and you have trouble breathing. You may even get lightheaded or need to run to the bathroom.

Watch How to Be a Confident TeacherUnfortunately, kids are really good at detecting when we are feeling insecure and capitalizing on the situation to create drama and/or get out of work. You can try to fake confidence (breathing helps, as does deodorant), but wouldn’t it be better to actually HAVE confidence?

So what exactly is confidence, and where can you get it? One definition of confidence (from Dictionary.com) is “belief in oneself and one’s powers or abilities.” And I think the best way to acquire a belief in your powers and abilities is to have a well-thought-out plan.

What could possibly go wrong in the classroom?I have a friend who jumps out of airplanes. He isn’t nervous about it at all, because he knows exactly what to do in just about every situation that can come up. There are protocols for what to do if the weather is bad, if the parachute doesn’t open, or if he starts to drift away from his target landing area. In other words, he has thought about what could go wrong, and made a plan to either prevent it (pack your chute correctly) or correct it (have a backup chute.)

Think of all the problems you could have in the classroomI recommend all new teachers (and experienced teachers, too) try to think of everything that can possibly go wrong in their classrooms. Then, make a procedure that will prevent that thing from happening, and teach it to your students. If I’m worried that students will sharpen pencils while I’m talking, I teach them what to do if their pencil breaks. If I think they’ll cheat on a test, I teach them how to arrange their desks. And so on.

Experienced teachers have a big advantage here, because they have had so many things go wrong already that they instinctively know what to plan for. But new teachers can do it, too. The problem is, many of them don’t. I know I didn’t. My idea of how to prepare for the classroom was to go to the teacher supply store and buy a bunch of thematic lesson plan books. What I should have done was think about the logistics of my classroom, and write a bunch of lesson plans to use at the beginning of the school year.

I always say “Confidence is natural when you know what to do.” And thinking it through ahead of time will help you know what to do.

Katrina Ayres, PositiveTeachingStrategies.com

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What’s the BEST Classroom Management Strategy?

In my role as a substitute teacher, my number one goal is the same as a doctor’s – do no harm.

I want the regular teacher to come back the next day with no messes to clean up or discipline issues to resolve, so that the class can move forward as if the regular teacher had never left.

Well, that’s the goal.

What's the BEST Classroom Management Strategy. Watch on Awesome Teacher Nation TV on YouTubeThis week I subbed in a really great class. The kids were calm when they came in. They seemed willing to give me a chance. They went along with my incentive program. They were flexible. They were helpful. They had to be patient because their teacher was unexpectedly sick and had not left very detailed plans. I was winging it and the students knew it. We got along pretty well the first day.

I thought the second day would be easy. I had a better idea of the routine and was able to be better prepared academically. But when I opened the classroom door I saw the students’ faces fall. Their beloved teacher was gone again! As the day wore on their behavior deteriorated. They were less focused, less flexible, less helpful. Less nice. I reacted by becoming more controlling, less understanding, and more negative. The class and I were de-evolving in lower life forms.

As you can imagine, this is a little disheartening for a classroom management “expert” like myself. Why didn’t my classroom management techniques and strategies work?

It’s because the regular teacher uses the very best classroom management technique there is. She builds positive relationships with her students. On her wall it says “In here we treat each other with respect and kindness,” and her students clearly know they are loved. As a stranger I could be politely tolerated, but my fancy-pants techniques and strategies weren’t nearly as effective as her yearlong quest to develop a positive relationship with each and every student.

Developing those relationships (especially with THOSE students) is not always easy. It takes time and effort, sometimes superhuman effort. But in the end, love is the best classroom management technique there is.

Now go make it a great day for yourself and your students!

Katrina Ayres, PositiveTeachingStrategies.com

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Why Ignoring Misbehavior Won’t Extinguish It

Students who misbehave to get the teacher's attentionI had just about had it with one of my 3rd graders. All day long it had been one thing after another. Shouting out, clowning around, throwing things, making faces and fart noises, wandering the room… you name it, this student was doing it.

Students who get in your face while you are talkingI finally just about lost it when he walked up to me while I was addressing the class and interrupted me mid-sentence to show me his new watch. Couldn’t he see I was busy? And then I finally realized he was acting out to get attention.

Common wisdom says the way to “extinguish” attention-getting behavior is to ignore it. In my experience, this doesn’t really work. I find what usually happens is the attention-getting misbehavior will keep accelerating until you finally snap and react in some way. Once the misbehaving student gets a reaction, the misbehavior is reinforced, making it more likely to happen again.

Preventative Attention - attention you give a student to prevent attention-getting misbehavior
If you have students who tend to act out to get attention, shower them with attention the moment they arrive in your room, before they’ve had a chance to start misbehaving. Say hello when they walk in. Ask their opinion about something (anything!) Ask them to show another student how to do something. Notice and comment on something they are doing right. Do not be fake and weird about it, but keep it going as consistently as you can for as long as you can.

If your students are already acting out, do what you need to do to stop the misbehavior, then start the positive attention routine as soon as possible. For example, when the 3rd grader tried to show me his watch during direct instruction, I smiled and said, “Show me during recess, honey,” and gestured toward his desk for him to sit down. Then I quickly called on him to answer a question I knew he could answer.

It may seem like this takes a lot of time and energy, and it does. But it takes even more time and energy to deal with all that attention-getting misbehavior all day long while trying to stay positive and maintain your sanity.

Do yourself a favor and give your needy students a little preventative attention. It couldn’t hurt, right?
Why You Can't Extinguish Misbehavior by Ignoring It

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Cell Phones in Class – Yes or No?

There are lots of great uses for cell phones in school, if we can just get students to use them without distracting themselves.

As part of the Classroom Management Strategies That Work seminar, I ask teachers to brainstorm a list of student behaviors that drive them crazy. Cell phones are always on the list. Always. In fact, I think cell phones may now rival pencil sharpeners for their ability to annoy teachers.

Cell Phones Off and AwayLast week I subbed in a middle school. As I walked through the halls, I saw lots of notices about cell phones – everything from “Keep your electronics off and out of sight” to “No phone zone” to this hilarious Top 10 list.

At this school, there is no rule against cell phones, but plenty of teachers are banning them anyway.

As the students arrived in my class, several of them asked if they could listen to music on their phones during work time. “Our teacher always lets us,” they said, which is middle school code for anything forbidden by the regular teacher that the students sneak around and do anyway.

I realized I needed to come up with a cell phone policy, ASAP. So I said, “I’ll explain my electronics policy after class starts,” which of course was my way of buying time to figure out what I was going to say. Ban cell phones and risk power struggles all period? Allow them and face constant negotiations and monitoring to ensure acceptable use?

My Highly Thought-Out Cell Phone Plan

The thing is, there are lots of great uses for cell phones in school, if we can just get students to use them without distracting themselves. Aha! Sounds like a Teach-To to me! And just like that, my Highly Thought-Out Cell Phone Plan was born:

  1. Taught the students the command “Electronics Away!” I told them specifically what I wanted – laptop lids completely closed, earphones out of ears, and phones completely out of sight in a backpack, pocket, or binder. If they followed this command, they would be allowed to use their electronics during appropriate times, such as independent work.
  2. Explained I would revoke individuals’ cell phone privileges if what they were doing was a distraction to me, other students, or themselves. Followed through when needed by saying, “Looks like your phone is distracting your neighbor. I need you to put it away, please.” (No warnings.)
  3. Before independent work time, explained very specifically what was okay, such as music with earphones, and what was not, such as texting. Requested they ask me if in doubt.

It’s true cell phones can be abused by our students. But so can rulers, pencils, glue, markers, paper, scissors, books, and every other educational tool. It’s our job to teach students how to use all tools effectively, including cell phones.

Now it’s your turn. Do you agree that cell phones are appropriate for the classroom? What is your cell phone policy? Feel free to email me, comment in our private Awesome Teacher Nation Facebook Group, or post in the comments below.

Now go create a great day for yourself and your students!

Katrina Ayres, PositiveTeachingStrategies.com

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Should Teachers Take Away Fidgets and Toys?

Whirling, twirling gadgets with levers, switches, and knobs

Troll-doll pencil toppers with fluffy pink hair-dos

Modeling clay that snaps, pops, and bounces

Spiky neon squeeze toys that light up and flash

Fidgets and Toys... Should Teachers Take Them Away?If you’ve been a teacher 2 minutes or so, you’ve certainly run across similar items in your classroom. Or if by some miracle you haven’t seen any of these, I bet you’ve seen the Artistic Water Bottle Flip, the Fabulous Ruler Spin, or the Paperclip Deconstruction Project.

A week or so ago I was assisting in a 2nd grade math class, moving from student to student to help them with their work. One cute little guy suddenly zoned off while I was trying to help him, distracted by his panda eraser. Without thinking I said, “If your eraser is going to keep you from listening, I’m going to have to take it away.”

He immediately pulled the eraser protectively to his chest and shouted, “No!” I realized I had just made an empty threat. There was no way I was going to wrestle Mr. Panda away from him, and it wouldn’t have helped him concentrate if I did. So I apologized, assured him I wasn’t going to take the eraser, and kept trying to help him with his math.

But now he was even more distracted. Even though he was trying to listen, his hand still curved protectively around Mr. Panda and he kept glancing at it while he was doing his work. Congratulations, Katrina, you just took a small problem and made it into a big one.

Taking stuff away can cause some of our students to fight us and others to withdraw or shut down

Is Taking Stuff Away a Good Practice?

This incident got me thinking about the common classroom practice of taking away distractions from students. I admit, I do it all the time, sometimes even without warning. That twirling ruler suddenly disappears off the pencil and reappears on my desk. The neon squeeze toy magically lands in my hand when it’s thrown into the air. Sure enough, taking away the distracting stuff makes the problem go away – most of the time.

Sometimes the cost can be high, though. Taking stuff away can cause some of our students to fight us and others to withdraw or shut down. Trust can be violated. Parents may become involved. Confiscated items (especially phones) can be lost or stolen. And what seems to be a little trinket to us may have an important emotional significance to the student.

Just to be clear, I never keep students’ possessions very long. I always give them back with a little lecture about putting them away or using them appropriately.

Still… is this a good solution? Even if the offending object is banned by the school, is it a good practice to confiscate it? Probably not.

What Should Teachers Do Instead?

If you don’t take the distraction away, the student is likely to get it out again, right? Is it fair to the other students who may be unable to pay attention while the distraction is going on? And what about our inability to teach effectively if we are worried about whether the fidget toy is going to spin off the desk and hit someone in the eye?

I think there are 3 reasons to take away distracting objects:

  1. When it is an immediate safety issue,
  2. When it has been specifically banned by the school, or
  3. When it pops up like Whac-a-Mole after you’ve asked for it to be put away.

Even then, we need to be careful how and when we take things away from students. Have the students been made aware of the problem and given a chance to fix it? If you must take something away, try to do it with as little drama as possible and be clear how and when the object will be returned. Then make every effort to keep your students’ belongings out of sight in your desk or other safe place.

What About You?

Do you take toys or other distractions away from students? If so, how do you handle it fairly? As always, I’d love to hear from you either in an email, in our Facebook group, or in the comments below.

Now go create a great day for yourself and your students!

Katrina Ayres, PositiveTeachingStrategies.com

PS – Would you like more practical classroom management strategies that work? Check out the Monday Morning Sanity Boost archives. If you like what you see, you may want to gain access to even more strategies that I only share with Awesome Teacher Nation members. You can join here. It’s free!

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Helping Students Manage the Social Cost of Doing the Right Thing

How many times have you heard thank you after you correct a student? Not many, I bet.

Have you ever had to separate students because they were distracting each other? Me too. In fact, it’s a rare day I DON’T find myself saying something along the lines of “Do you think you two can stay focused if you sit together? I hope so, because otherwise I’m going to have to separate you.”

That Was a Surprise!

So the astonishing thing that happened the other day wasn’t that I had to separate two students who were goofing around. The astonishing thing was what one of the students said after I moved her. She said, “Thank you, Mrs. Ayres.”

Thank you? How many times have you heard thank you after you correct a student? Not many, I bet. Now, it’s true this student is a teacher’s child. And it’s also true we had a respectful, problem-solving-focused discussion before I moved her. But still – thank you?

I wonder how many other students are thinking thank you even though outwardly they may be saying something very, very different.

I wonder how many other students are thinking thank you even though outwardly they may be saying something very, very different. How many are relieved someone intervened, set a limit, and changed the situation so they could course-correct without losing face in front of their friends?

Social Risk

It’s risky for students to tell their friends they want to work instead of talk. They may be afraid of looking like the teacher’s pet. Or they may be worried about hurting their friend’s feelings. By enforcing the rules and following through, we don’t just keep order in our classroom. We also give students a way to make the right choices in a socially acceptable way.

Even if my students sigh and complain when I correct them, I intend to help them out anyway. Who knows how many are silently saying thank you?

Now go create a great day for yourself and your students!

Katrina Ayres, PositiveTeachingStrategies.com

PS – Would you like more practical classroom management strategies that work? Check out the Monday Morning Sanity Boost archives. If you like what you see, you may want to gain access to even more strategies that I only share with Awesome Teacher Nation members. You can join here. It’s free!

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