For Real Teachers In Our Toughest Schools
Monday January 22nd 2018



It’s Not All About the Subject You Teach

Leadership Abstract Concept

Over the last couple of years I’ve heard a discussion at my school about teaching Math on a block day. Here at my High Poverty school, we have a modified 6 period day. On Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, the kids go to all 6 classes. On Wednesday they go to odd classes and on Thursday they go to evens. The problem lies in the fact that on the even and odd days each class is two hours without a break. This extended time period is sometimes frustrating, as the minutes drag by and our already tentative learners atrophy into all out boredom.

Of course it is not just the math department, all of us have to get creative on the block days, especially the one in which we don’t get a prep and teach straight through the day without a break.

Now I am a big fan of being professional and sticking to your curricular guns in most aspects of education. For example, I like to teach until the bell rings. I don’t like having the kids standing around for even two minutes at the end of class poised to bum rush the door as if the bell were a gunshot at an Olympic track event. But when faced with two hours of class time, sometimes common sense must prevail. The first solution I have is very simple:

Give them a break.

Literally. Give them a five-minute break at the hour mark, or whenever there is a logical pause in your lesson. I just talked to someone who just figured this out after three years of teaching. They said this to me, “Wow, I just talked to Michelle about the block days and she told me to give the kids a break halfway through. Are we allowed to do that?” I almost started laughing. Actually, now that I think about it, I did start laughing.

In today’s world of “Do Now” warm-ups, must have Agendas, Standards posted on the wall, and maniacal test prep culture, I think some of us need to take a deep breath and relax. What we teach isn’t all about the content, the standards, or our chosen subject matter. Although no one ever says it, our job is more about leadership, inspiration, and love than content, or at the very least a fifty-fifty split between the two.

I’ve done some great lessons with my new 10th grade English class. Like always, I start the year with engaging writing lessons like Balancing Your Ghetto and Music: Pretty Much the Worst Thing Out There, both of which involve extensive reading and writing in an argumentative, reflective manner indicative of the content I teach. But Thursday, on my long block day, I might have had the best day of the year so far.

A representative of UC came into my Junior class the day before and gave a long Powerpoint on the PSAT, SAT, and ACT, and had a link to a prepared Jeopardy game at the end as a review. It was a cool presentation, so I decided to give the Powerpoint to my 10th grade class because all Sophomores at my school this year get to take the PSAT for free.

After their five minute break in the middle of the class, after preparing for the play Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez which we are starting this week, I told them that because it was Thursday, I was going to treat them to something special (need I mention buy-in is always in the set-up, had I said I’m giving a lecture on tests, they might not have been as excited—or awake). I sold it like it was the greatest thing in the world, told them they didn’t even have to take notes; but I also said anyone who did take notes would get extra credit.

So I started into the Powerpoint, which is pretty bland if you just look at the words, but pretty soon I was regaling them with inappropriate stories from my college dorms and as I got into it, I gave one of the most inspiring speeches of my life I think. I even got multiple applause breaks. I went into the weekend feeling awesome and I think they did too. I’m fairly certain I had a ton of kids in there thinking about college who had never considered it in that light—the odd Portuguese light I try and shine on everything.

Here’s the takeaway: What I did wasn’t mind blowing, but think about the math teacher who doesn’t know what to do on his or her long day. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all taking some time to be inspiring, motivate the kids in different directions, but do it by passing along relevant information they need to know? Wouldn’t it be cool if all their teachers were giving Powerpoints on colleges or careers or ANYTHING of interest once the day’s lesson has been accomplished? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some fun?

One thing I have learned about teaching ALL of my classes is that you can’t abandon the principles of community and familia in ANY class. You are going to have these kids for an entire year, so you should be doing much more than lecturing and doing classwork. You need to build a family, and to do that, you don’t need to teach content 100% of the time. I would argue that’s actually a horrible idea.

Some of the toughest classes we teach are the toughest classes in which to build a community. It is hard to do group work because the kids can’t work well together. It’s hard to sit and read because the kids are bad at sitting and reading. But it is these very classes, especially on long block days, that need some inspiration and some love—we can’t forget that and keep banging our head against the dense wall of our curriculum—sometimes we have to throw the standardized lesson plans aside and be a leader of people.

As I wind down I am reminded of the recent professional development seminars to which I have been. You’ve been to the same ones—the presenter is up there repeating themselves thirty times to an audience who has just as many cell phones out as a classroom with a sub. Many have out laptops and are posting to Facebook how horrible the presenter is and how bored they are. One of them turns to you when you are required to actually do an activity and asks “What are we supposed to be doing?” Most of the grown-ass adults I know can’t sit in a quiet room and stare at someone while they speak, read, write, or do ANYTHING for two hours. Why do we expect hormonally oozing teenagers to do what most of us can’t?

You want to know how to teach on a long day? Give the kids a break. Be a leader, have some fun, and remember: It isn’t all about the content. The job is much more important than that, and the kids will be much more interested as well. It works—How do I know?

At the end of my Powerpoint about three-hour tests, I collected the notes of any students who had volunteered to jot them down. Almost the entire class had done so.

Reader Feedback

8 Responses to “It’s Not All About the Subject You Teach”

  1. Katrina Neill says:

    Hi Matt,

    How is your new school year going so far? Mine is off to a great start and I can’t wait to challenge this group of students. They are fun, sweet, spunky and willing to complete my logic puzzles this year. Yes, I completely agree that classrooms need to feel like a community. I have always been an “avid” (no pun intended) proponent of telling stories and hearing goofy stories from my students. Remember I’m dealing with the 7th graders, silliness goes a long way. A funny story to share with you. About 2 weeks ago I was talking about my first job out of college, I used to be a blackjack dealer in Tahoe and was describing the unique customers that could count cards. It was in relation to a memory trick I was trying to teach them in the middle of my lesson. The kids were intrigued by the fact I was actually a fun human at one point in my life and wanted to ask me a ton of questions about my days as a casino dealer. Right in the middle of the Q & A session, a Vietnamese male student raised his hand and said, “Why did you tell that story, you just wasted our time”. Keep in mind, he’s only been in the U.S. for two years and has a remarkable English vocabulary. The other kids were shocked and some even gasped a bit. I explained to him that sometimes it’s okay to take a break from note-taking and brain intensity and relax. My Vietnamese friend and colleague explained that in her country, education is treated much differently. Students are focused and show a high amount of respect for their teachers. I could understand why he made his comment out loud, but the other students have unfortunately alienated him since then. Somehow I feel the need to compromise for the cultural differences that are in my classroom, but at the same time, I need some relaxation time too!

    • Katrina, I was wondering how your year was going thus far. Great story, I had a smile when I read it. It makes me think, even though we pride ourselves on being outgoing and social and having the kids get out of their seats, when I hear about classrooms like your students in Vietnam, I sometimes think, “Man, maybe I shouldn’t mess around so much and get them quiet and writing.” So the next day they aren’t allowed to say a thing. Like everything, the key to life is in the balancing of it all. I’m glad you’re doing good. I’m more of a craps player, any advice on how to get ahead of the odds on that game?

  2. Janel Young says:

    Hey Matt! Another great post, as usual. I’m a counselor in Maryland and have 10th grader this year. They will also be taking the PSAT in October for free … which they are all so excited about, I’m sure. I’m going in to classrooms the first week in October to do the obligatory PSAT-prep PowerPoint from CollegeBoard. Obviously, I’d love it if they were engaged and not drooling ont he desks at the end of the half hour. Any chance your PowerPoint is not the usual, scripted nonsense from CB? If so, would you share it with me? Especially the link to the Jeopardy-esque review. I am so NOT tech-savvy or I’d create my own but I love the idea!

    Thanks for sharing your insight. I always feel the slightest compulsion to pump my fist in the air and shout, “preach!” after reading your posts. This may or may not happen every time…

    • Hope it works for you, although the text itself isn’t anything game changing. But it has some cool slides. I can’t take credit for it though, like everything, I stole it:)

  3. TrishiaM says:

    Matt, I really understand what you mean about getting away from curriculum sometimes. I am a high school math teacher with ten years experience. My first few years of teaching I was scared to do anything unusual because of the pressure to make sure my students passed the state exam. Time and experience have shown me that we need to have those real life conversations. I teach in a high poverty school also and teachers are often the only college graduates our students know. I now make it a point to talk about my college experience and answer their questions. My students don’t realize colleges don’t have lockers, that you don’t attend classes seven hours a day, or how to tell the difference between a freshman level class and a senior level one. I feel that by taking more time to build these relationships I am able to be a better teacher and occasionally I am able to pass on some advice that someone will actually listen to. I always encourage new teachers to look for moments like you wrote about and to not be afraid to be real on their class. After all, none of became teachers because we love state mandated curriculum and high stakes testing, but because we love kids and we want to make a difference.

  4. Lucy says:

    I’ve just started reading this blog and I’m hooked. I’m an aspiring teacher my last six months of teacher’s college and eager to get out in the classroom. Unlike most of my classmates, I’m most interested in how to reach the students that are the most at risk and I’ve been inspired by several of your posts to make lesson plans designed for those students. Thanks so much for this blog!

  5. says:

    Nice article! I’ve learned a lot from your ideas. Thanks!

  6. Excellent post Matt! What I like to sugget to teachers while conducting staff workshops, is to incorporate games and activities with the lesson. I’ve learned that putting students in groups and having them compete for points to win a prize works most of the time.

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