The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How Teachers and Other School Workers Went the Extra Mile

 Last week I wrote about  things I did at the schools where I was principal to create two classrooms at each grade level and insure that teachers had a partner and time to meet together. Today I will describe the innovative projects of two of my teachers and a school custodian that benefitted students’ learning and helped them to enjoy being at school.

 My greatest pleasure in being a principal was working with teachers and other school employees who were eager to do extra work to improve our school and the experiences of its students. Although I could not pay them for their efforts, I could provide them with the time and materials they needed, and make sure they received public recognition and honor.

At my elementary school in Wisconsin one of our grade 4/5 teachers got the idea of opening a school store. When she described it to me it sounded like it would benefit the students who made items for store considerably. Her idea was to use an empty classroom for a school store that would be open one day a week during the noon hour and sell only student- made products. Fortunately, I was able to grant her the time during the school day to create that store, assist students who wanted to make and sell products, and supervise the store operation.

The first parts of the teacher’s new job were to advertise for students who wanted to create items for the store and then to advise them about the practicality of their proposed items and the prices to be charged.  Although no food items would be allowed in the store,* many useful and decorative items were produced and sold. Among the most popular ones were greeting cards, wooden games, decorative magnets, soft sculptured jewelry, embroidered handkerchiefs, and rocks with painted images.

As time went by, the student item makers and the items changed, but the store continued to be popular. Some students never tired of making things to sell and others never tired of buying them. Over time, the most popular items were decorative rather than useful. The desire for a woven bracelet always exceeded that for a workbook cover.

Our store continued to operate and be popular for several years while I was Principal. I don’t know what happened after I left to live and work in Oregon, and another principal took over my job.

At the middle school in Oregon where I next became principal, our math teacher was the one who proposed having a student “Jobs” program and supervised it. Any middle school student willing to work 20 minutes a day could apply for job, which was available before or after school hours and during the school day for those who were not in a class at that time.

Interested students were required to fill out an application form, get recommendations from adults, and go through an interview with the teacher in charge. Those who completed those requirement successfully were assigned to work in the cafeteria, gym, playground, or school hallways by moving things from place to place, serving food, taking away trash, or delivering items to classrooms.  Another possibility was assisting workers in the school office in various ways. The adults at the places where students worked supervised their performance and reported on it to the math teacher in charge of the program.

Students signed in and out of the time they worked in the school office and received points for each day worked. At the end of the school year a raffle of desirable gifts was held for all those who participated. The number of points a worker had earned over the year determined which items he or she could bid for and, perhaps, win. Those who worked the most days were able to bid for items valued at as much as a hundred dollars. Workers who had put in  less time were able to win desirable, but less expensive items, such as magazine subscriptions, hats, tee shirts, decorative pieces, or even bags of candy. Students who had not been workers, or were in elementary grades, also attended the yearly raffles to watch the prizes won and cheer for the winners.

The last program I want to describe was proposed by our custodian at the Oregon school. She was a  smart, child-loving young woman who organized groups of students to help with collecting classroom trash and discarded milk containers from the cafeteria.  Many of those materials had to be cleaned and sorted for trash company pickup. As a result of students’ efforts, our school won an award for the largest amount of re-cycled paper products in our county.

In addition to the special project, our custodian was always available to students who hung around before or after school in order to work with her. She taught them skills and praised them for their work. Because she was such an important part of our school, I arranged to take her, along with several teachers, to a meeting and celebration in the state of Washington as one of our outstanding school employees.










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What is Chronic Absenteeism, and What Should Schools Do About It?

As I continue my reading of school problems “Chronic Absenteeism” seems to be the major one right now.  I can’t help wondering if our kids are all going bad at once or many of our schools  are becoming intolerable.

While brushing my teeth this morning it occurred to me that today is my 14th day of having a bad cold. Although I’m feeling better than I did a week ago—maybe because I’m now taking a medication—I’m still not operating on all cylinders. What if I were a young person who was supposed to be at school?

Well, that’s not likely, because my colds cleared up much quicker when I was a kid. But my situation made me think about school absenteeism, which seems to be a major issue for public schools all over the country these days. Among the ESSA plans submitted by all states this year, 36 of them and the District of Columbia included the goal of reducing student absenteeism drastically. Although there is no research that tells us how much absenteeism is the tipping point for any student, most states have selected 10 % of the school year as the number that is the one after which a student is likely to fall behind in his work and fail one or more classes. They have labeled this number as “chronic absenteeism” and introduced various school actions to get students to school more regularly.

In case you’ve forgotten how to figure out percentages, my calculator says that 10% of the usual school year (180 days) is 18 days. So chronic absenteeism may now be diagnosed in students who are absent for a day or two in some months and those who are absent for long periods of time. In my opinion some students’ patterns of absences  affect their learning  negatively and others’ patterns not at all.

For those reasons I think that the best approach for a school is to have one or more officials–depending on school size– to keep track of student absences and meet with those students who appear to have problems. The official would also contact parents to find out what is causing the absences and if there is any way to reduce them.

Beyond those actions, any school that feels it has an absenteeism epidemic should look internally to see where it might be making school too difficult, unappealing, or even unbearable for many students; then work to make some positive changes.  Such changes could be reducing bullying, providing a wider range of classes for students to chose from, or introducing more social activities. When there is an epidemic of absenteeism in a school it is not only students that need to be healed, but also the school.

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Handling School Misbehavior

Over the past month I happened to come upon two articles about misbehaving students and the importance of treating them with empathy rather than punishment. Although I agree with that philosophy, I was disappointed that neither article went on to describe what empathy looks like in a classroom or how to put a stop to rude or disruptive misbehavior. So I decided to write today about my philosophy of preventing student misbehavior and my ways of working when it reared its ugly head.

One thing I learned early as a teacher was to be soft-spoken and act kindly in the classroom. Instead of scolding a class for being noisy or careless in their work, I tried to identify each of those things as “our problem” and hold class discussions on what we could do to solve it. Most of the time, I got some good suggestions that the class and I agreed upon and which we could implement easily. Because students had been part of the decision many of them also turned out to be leaders who made sure their less dedicated classmates followed through on what had been decided .

Another thing I tried to practice was to help students who had behavior problems rather than punish them. Although working with each student varied, it was always private and focused on repairing any damage done or preventing possible problems in the future. Often that also meant giving students assistance from an aide in the classroom, such as helping them organize their materials and guiding them to the homework that needed to be done. One student who moved from the elementary grades to middle school needed an adult guide to get him to the right classrooms at the beginning of the school year.

When I became a principal I was able to help students who had been sent out of their classroom because of misbehavior. I always talked with students about what had happened and advised them on how to avoid similar situations in the future. One such encounter was exceptional. The boy who was sent to my office was so angry that he could not sit down and talk when he got there. He said, “I’ve got to scream.” So I told him to go into my private bathroom, shut the door and scream as much as he needed. After a few minutes he came back, quiet and ready to discuss his problem with me. At the end of our talk he decided to go back to the classroom and apologize to his teacher. That plan worked out successfully and things got better for him from then on.

Over time I also observed effective teacher strategies in other schools. One first grade teacher disciplined misbehaving students by sending them to the “thinking chair” at the back of the classroom. That chair included a small table with a large stuffed animal sitting on it. Child offenders told the animal about what they had done, often hugging it and shedding some tears while they did so. Many children also apologized to the animal. After they had told their story and salved their hurt feelings, they went back to their regular seats and joined their classmates in whatever they were doing.

At one of my schools I admired a special education teacher who was great at calming down any students who had become angry and were acting out, threatening the safety of others students and themselves. Her strategy with anyone who was physically violent was to grab them from behind and pull them down to the floor where she held their hands across their bodies and put her legs over theirs to keep them from flailing. Repeatedly she would say, “I won’t let you hurt yourself,” until they calmed down.

Once or twice a student became so unhinged, that she would call the parents to explain what was happening and say that she would like to bring the child home. Almost always the parents would agree,

Although I was not always successful, my attitude and actions helped teachers to deal with unruly students. They knew they could count on me to take away  students who were disrupting a class and keep them till they calmed down. My goal was to change bad behavior rather than punish it, while protecting teachers and other students in the meantime.

One interesting thing was that after my first years as a principal in two different schools,  the incidents of student misbehavior decreased sharply in both of them.  I believe it was because all of us–teachers, students, and I–calmed down and behaved more graciously toward each other.


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Restructuring Classrooms in Small Elementary Schools

After re-posting a piece recently about the research that led teachers to believe that certain students were smarter than they really were, I started to think about some of the things I did as a school principal to help teachers and students succeed, think well of themselves, and be motivated to take on new responsibilities school-wide. Although, I’m sure I have mentioned some of those actions previously, today I will try to describe more fully one set of actions I took that made a big positive change in both schools where I was principal. In the future I will describe other actions that produced positive results.

Right after graduating from college with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and the Dramatic Arts, I decided to become a teacher and enrolled in a summer-long class that qualified me for a basic teaching license. Over the next several years, as my husband and I moved from New Jersey to Puerto Rico, back to N.J, and then to Wisconsin, I gained experience by teaching in eight different schools at many levels from grade 1 to 12. In addition, I took many university courses and earned a Doctorate in Curriculum Development and Applied Linguistics.

Among the things I learned from my university courses and classroom experiences was that small elementary schools inevitably have uneven class sizes, some so large that teaching and learning cannot be as good as they should be. I also learned that having teachers working alone at a single grade level was not a good idea. Not only was there a wide range of experience and competence among teachers at any school, but also little coordination because of their isolation, differences in training, and previous teaching experiences. Also, at a small school there were only rare opportunities for teachers to observe each other’s teaching or work together.

In 1974, when  I decided to leave teaching and become a school principal, I applied for an opening at a small elementary school in a middle class community in Madison, Wisconsin, the state capital, base of the state university, and home to a large number of educated people.

I spent most of my first year as a principal getting acquainted with the teachers, students, and current practices in my new school. I observed in classrooms,  sat and talked with teachers during their lunch hour, and held group discussions about things teachers or I saw as school problems. However, I did not formally formally evaluate teachers or castigate any one for problems I had observed in their classroom.

Near the end of that school year I held some meetings with teachers to explain what I saw as problems in our school structure , and described the changes I wanted to make to improve students’ learning and teachers’ jobs. Through those discussions teachers slowly came to see the same problems I saw and to agree with my plans to ameliorate them.

I also asked teachers to join me in a large parent meeting to be held at the beginning of the new school year, in order to explain the changes to be made and how they would improve our school.  In addition, I suggested a seating plan for the meeting in which all parents would be at round tables with a teacher. First, I would describe the school changes we intended to make to the entire audience. Then the teacher at each table would talk with the parents about the details and do their best to convince them that our school restructuring plan would work better for everyone. By having parents discuss the proposed changes with teachers they knew and trusted, we were able to convince most of them that our school and our students would benefit by the planned restructuring.

Over the following school year we were able to put second and third grade students into common classrooms and do the same for fourth and fifth graders. Unfortunately, we could not combine kindergarten and first grade because kindergarten was only a half-day class. However, much later, at my second school, we received enough funding to hire an additional teacher which enabled me to create two K-1 classrooms.  Those mixed classes met every morning to work on basic school skills and appropriate classroom behavior.  They also ate lunch in the cafeteria together. In the afternoon, after the kindergarteners had gone home,  first-graders met with their teachers in two small classes that emphasized reading, writing and math.

Over the 25 years that I was principal at two small schools we continued combining grades and having two teachers at each grade level.  We  believed –along with parents—that our new structures were successful. Below are the major positive effects we saw in this  form of classroom structuring:

Reasonable size classrooms at all levels

Good combinations of students in each classroom

Teachers at each level able to plan together and  help each other solve problems during daily common planning times

 Inexperienced teachers teamed with experienced teachers

 Students in mixed-grade classrooms soon losing awareness of grade differences                                   and working  well together

 A mixed -grade classroom providing more time and support for lagging students to                          catch up and avoid being held back in grade

There was really no disadvantage for students in combined grades

P.S. For those readers who are wondering about the curricula for mixed grade classrooms, here’s how we handled them in the years before the CCSS and yearly testing. Each classroom covered two years in subjects such as math, geography, science, etc. For reading all students were grouped by ability, regardless of their official grade. Every year the students who had been in a classroom for two years moved on to the next the higher two-year classroom. The students who had been there for only one year stayed put for the second year and were joined by a new group of students from the previous grade.



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Believing in and Supporting Students is a Big Part of a Teacher’s Job

Throughout this week I have been laid low by a terrible cold, so I wrote nothing. Today I don’t feel quite ready to innovate, but I also feel guilty about letting a week go by without  standing up for the things I believe in about education.  So, here’s a piece I posted more than a year ago that recalls an important research study done 40 years ago, and, incidentally, reflects what I strongly believe.

“High expectations” is the mantra of today’s school reformers, who are convinced that the trouble with public education is that students have been allowed to slide by with little effort. Their version of high expectations is requiring college-preparatory courses, advanced subject matter, more-difficult assignments, and a longer school day and year for all students. They believe that research and the records of selected schools show that demanding more of students brings the desired results.

But do they understand the research, or know what successful schools really do?

The original research on teacher expectations tells a far different story from what today’s reformers are calling for. More than 40 years ago, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted an experiment in a California elementary school that produced what they called “The Pygmalion Effect”, in a reference to a Greek myth and George Bernard Shaw’s famous play,“Pygmalion.” All three highlight the amazing transformation of an ordinary person into someone special. In their book Pygmalion in the Classroom, they described the study in detail and interpreted its lessons for education and other human interactions.

 The experiment consisted of giving false information to teachers about their students and then sitting back to see what happened. On the pretext of testing the reliability of a newly developed test to predict future student achievement, the researchers administered a traditional IQ test to all students at the beginning of the school year. Afterward, they reported to teachers, based supposedly on the tests, the names of students who were about to have a spurt in academic performance.

In reality, those students were a randomly selected percentage of the student body, and their scores showed nothing but their current IQs. At the end of the year, and again two years later, all students were retested, and the results showed that a significant number of the identified “spurters” had in fact made unusual intellectual and performance gains and maintained them over time. Teachers’ grades and written reports also recorded marked improvements in learning and behavior for most of those students.

Although the researchers did not examine what happened in classrooms that year, teachers’ written reports were clear about what did not happen: no extra time, no advanced curriculum, no individual tutoring, no differentiated instruction or assignments.

Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that what teachers gave their spurters—but not other students—were unmistakable signals of their faith in them: smiles, nods of approval, more opportunities to ask and answer questions, and a kindly tone of voice. Teachers’ expectations of student success, and their unconscious communication of those expectations, made all the difference.

In its time, this study, along with its replications in three other schools and similar behavioral studies, garnered widespread and authoritative attention. Although there was some criticism of methodology and score interpretation, critics did not contest the researchers’ conclusion that the expectations in teachers’ minds were the determining factor in the success of the identified students

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