02 August 2012

School Restart: Change on Day One

One of the statements which drives me insane is the teacher who tells me that they must, "set the strict rules from the first day, then they can ease off later." I always "suggest" that when they do that, they not only lose all the respect of their students, the literally create a room full of enemies, and if they try to "ease off" later it will go as well as... say the last days of the East German or Romanian Ceauşescu regimes.
"We cracked down, then we allowed a little more freedom"
the end of the Romanian dictatorship, 1989
If you want to begin the school year educationally, creating an ecosystem designed around student learning, you surely don't need to begin as a "tough guy," you instead have to throw out all of your "classroom management" strategies and probably almost everything else your school usually does the day kids come back from summer holidays...

Here are ten things to change at the start:

1. Do NOT welcome kids to a "new school" or a "new grade" - that's your vanity showing through, and it insists that children adapt their learning to you, instead of the educational ecosystem flexing to meet the child. Instead, welcome them to a "continuation of their learning" and of "their life." As I will say over and over here, school is about the children, it is not about the adults - it is about meeting students where they are, not creating hoops for trained monkeys to jump through.

"Step in, sit there" - Alcatraz, early 1960s
2. Do NOT assign seats, or even require sitting - imagine, you walk into a party and the first thing you hear is, "sit down over there and shut up." I, for one, am probably walking back out of the door and not coming back. If you start minute one of day one with an exercise in compliance, your school year is already "over" in many ways, and you've already lost half of your students in significant ways.

So say instead, "welcome, come on in, make yourself comfortable." If this space is to be your shared home for the next nine months, would you want to begin any other way?

3. Avoid the "ice breaker" events until you know your students well, and then they aren't needed. "Ice Breaker" games you have designed are - I'll assume unintentionally - designed to humiliate. Whatever they involve, writing, walking, running, reading, speaking may be incredibly difficult for some kids in the room, creating first day failure, first day humiliation, and, inevitably, justified anger.

Whatever age, whatever place, allow students to find their own places of comfort on day one, only then can you actually observe what the children in your room need.

4. Do NOT let your classroom be set up according to what you like - it is NOT your space, but "their's." I hear all the time from teachers, "I like this color," "I want my desk here," "I want to use this space this way," "I don't want kids writing on the floor, it's dirty," "I cannot handle too much noise," "If I don't have desks this way, I can't see." Lots and lots of "I" statements in a profession which is - quite definably - supposed to be about the children.

This moves from the (perhaps) minor, an odd love for motivational posters for example, to the ridiculous (and perhaps dangerous) - I recently saw an elementary classroom where the teacher had completely blocked the only classroom window with a "presidential-sized" desk of her own, and had filled the windowsill with her stuff so no child could possibly get to natural light. I often see middle school classrooms where teachers have covered every window, both to corridors and to the outside. I see school entryways painted in colors chosen because "the principal likes it."

It is NOT your space. It is the students' space and an essential part of education is learning to negotiate the development of shared space - especially in a society of one or two-child families, kids with their own rooms, and homes which separate instead of bringing families together.

"don't think, just repeat"
Chaplin in
Modern Times
5. Stop encouraging automaticity, cultivate mindfulness instead. It is time to embrace Ellen Langer and work to replace the "robot brain" so many schools encourage with the engaged mindfulness of students consciously making decisions. "Mindfulness, [Langer] tells the medical school audience, is the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations."

Langer describes what is needed everywhere in education - “the psychology of possibility,” because, “...knowing what is and what can be are not the same things,” and for students, obviously, the "can be" is all important. If it wasn't, they'd be done.

So much that we do in schools to "create habits" works toward what Langer calls "mindlessness." If a child gets off the same bus each day, walks through the same school door, down the same corridor, to the same classroom, and takes the same seat, they have begun their school day by shutting their brain down. The same is true of everything from "homework every night," to memorizing facts - is our goal really the absence of thinking?

Automaticity - mindlessness - is an industrial efficiency concept. Don't think, just repeat. Does that belong in your school?

6. Hypocrisy doesn't work - it tells children that you are a liar and a tyrant. So many children go to schools where every adult eats and drinks while using their computers, but the kids are not allowed to do the same. Many teachers have beverages while kids must wait until "snack time." Many communities tolerate behaviors in adults - and in adult leaders - which would get kids suspended or worse.

This is especially true for the young adolescents who occupy American middle schools, kids who live in the most absurd world where the only sure way they can be treated as an adult is to murder someone, but they are constantly told to "behave like an adult." Either trust kids as the humans they are, or choose to treat them like animals - but understand - they will act as you expect them to act.

7. Do NOT overdecorate with stuff you've bought - let the kids make it their own. Don't fill your classroom with purchased stuff. A great way to begin the year is to make our children into "makers." Let them paint, draw, write, build, sculpt - their passions, their lives, their dreams - and decorate right from the start with what your kids have created.

Really? Really?!
8. Human dignity matters above all - do NOT take it away. A few things must be unacceptable across your school - no one should have the right to tell someone else when they can or cannot use the toilet, no one should have the right to tell someone else when they can or cannot move to make themselves more comfortable, no one should have the right to imprison anyone in a space without something like "cause."

Now, none of this suggests that we don't learn to negotiate all of this within our own community - "how do I get up and head toward the bathroom?" "how do I move from my chair to standing in the back without bothering people?" "what are my responsibilities if I need to leave the classroom?" - but prohibitions based on whim - or some belief in "church-like" behavior - are simply not tolerable.

9. Don't tell, ask instead. I hate the notion that years in school are nothing more than preparation for some pre-cooked set of expectations for the next year. That's absurd, it tells students that their is no actual goal and that none of us understand why any kid would come to school.

Instead, we must meet students where they are. It is not the job of fifth grade teachers to prep future middle school students, it is the job of sixth grade teachers to meet their new students where they are, and then to help them move forward.

So this year, ask. Open a Google Doc and share the link. Put paper on the floor or wall. Create a TodaysMeet room, and ask your students to tell you what they did last year, and where they want to go this year.

10. Don't do what I've done here - nobody wants to look at negative lists. I recently wandered some school corridors with principals during this summer "quiet time" and in one case we tore down every "No" and behavioral "control" sign in the building, because "no" is a restriction, and a limited one at that - far better to empower possibility than to restrict the few things you can think of.

So frame things in the positive, embrace common sense, and remember, people make rules and put up signs when they have failed - when people in a community do not understand the need to do the right thing.

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

Much of what you say seems like a wonderful start but ... And you knew there was a but... How does this work in every school? What if your admin states no one can be in the halls without a pass? How do you deal with shared classrooms an five classes a day where student creations are not really authentic. What about your school's scope and sequence?

How about you make a list of how to do it in an actual school room so I find ways to implement?

Anonymous said...

I'm calling BS on this one.

If you don't exert control over your classroom, they'll be all over the place by the end of the semester/year.

The exception is if you have particularly high performing students...then, that stuff might work. But not for the regular, real deal students that most of us deal with on a daily basis.

irasocol said...

For anonymous #1:

How to do it? Well, yes, it starts with the principal, who sets the tone for a school, either seeing it as a prison or a community.

Then, well, observation tells me that "anonymous #2" is completely, and sadly (for the students involved) wrong, because this is all about having trust in other humans, and in believing that children and adolescents are not a foreign enemy.

For anonymous #2, this works, it works - in fact - best among the traditional "lowest achievers," the most "at risk." I saw this in 1968-1980, I saw it last year in schools dominated by our poorest kids, both urban and rural.

The primary implementation trick is seeing our children as our children. To stop "othering" them, and being afraid of them, as "anonymous #2" does and is.

-Ira Socol
who will say more soon

Anonymous said...

Unrealistic. Sounds like you want to be a friend instead of an educator!

irasocol said...

Ah, "anonymous #3" - it is "unrealistic" except that we are doing it in many different kinds of very inclusive - including some formerly very challenged - public schools in all kinds of places, and student achievement, by every measure, is way up, while problems - behaviour, bullying, attendance issues, et al, are way down.

Do I want to be their friend? No. Do I want to be their "educator"? No, I want to enable their education, all of their educations.

Here are things I don't want to be: Their jailer. Their police officer (I've done that, its great work, but its not this work), their postman - leaving packages of "knowledge" on the doorstep whether anyone answers the bell or not.

I want to be guide, mentor, learner-in-chief, support, provocateur, coach, resource... because those are the things human learners need.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

You are merely playing semantics. You don't want to be an 'educator' but a 'guide and a mentor'. They are one and the same. Educators provide guidance, mentorship, support, coaching etc. The world is full of 'education' experts who are all trying to reinvent the wheel and sell their idea as the solution. The biggest factor that determines student success is their home environment; the second biggest factor is the quality of the educator or teacher or mentor or guide or whatever term you want to apply to it. Kids respond best when the expectations in the classroom are fair and firm. To suggest that good educators who have classroom rules and expectations are somehow like dictators or prison guards is insulting and wrong.

irasocol said...

OK, three things here "anonymous #3"...

a) if you want to continue an intelligent conversation you need to identify yourself. The heart of academic conversations lies in accountability for your words, so you've stepped far past the place where "anonymous" is acceptable for any professional. I sign my name to everything I put on-line, and I do that as part of how I mentor and coach my students to be responsible for their own actions, words, and decisions - which is, in turn, the heart of what this blog post is about.

b) I am often quite amused by "educators" (we'll use your word) who claim that semantics, semiology, words, and word meanings do not matter. Without going all "Umberto Eco" on you, I find that everything we say/do/signal sends distinct messages to our children, because even if our vision has closed down to a "spotlight" (brain science: the more you know, the less you see), the wonder of childhood and adolescence is that kids see "everything" and they make meaning from everything they see. Which is also key to this blog post.

c) You began by calling this "unrealistic," and when I called you on this, by saying we are doing it every day in schools in many places, you go off and complain about something else.

So, I'll ask you to (a) give your name, and (b) tell me whether these suggestions are impossible or just something you do not want to do?

I'd also ask you to offer some level of proof that "Kids respond best when the expectations in the classroom are fair and firm," given the context that classroom management, as we know it, has failed two-thirds of American kids consistently over the past 180 years, that the techniques which dominated education until the open classrooms of the 1960s produced a nation in which 75% of students failed to graduate from high school, and, in which, the educational conservatism of the past 30 years has not moved even one marker of success in the right direction. Or given that KIPP schools - and their like - focused on the "firm/fair" can only beat out schools no one actually attends, but the schools I work with - which focus on student choices and student responsibility, match up with many of the top public schools in the nation in student success - no matter what the socioeconomics are.

I am not, of course, disputing the dominance of socioeconomics, but the evidence is clear, that the best solution to that is treating all students like actual humans, because kids from struggling families already come to school to with finely honed decision-making capabilities which we can work with to build their lifespan success possibilities.

And, I'm sorry if you received my message as insulting, but if I walk through many American schools I see "educators" choosing to behave as "dictators" and "prison guards." And in response, I see disastrous results for students on many levels. I never see humans of any age requesting prison guards, so I know this is the choice of those "educators."

For me, I'm trying to build democracy, responsibility, belief in self, all the things Yong Zhao quite clearly points out are the requirements for successful cultures and successful economies.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

In simplest terms, I believe that what you are saying here is to build an environment of respect and trust. As my mom used to say to a younger version of me - treat others the way you wish to be treated.

David Prindle said...

Hopefully, is doesn't post twice. Ira, I am going to try this this year with my classes. I will keep you posted on the progress.

irasocol said...

"Anonymous #4" - Yes, what do we teach children when we treat them as if they are dangerous? We teach them to rank others that way.

David - awesome, please blog the experience for all of us

- Ira Socol

Mike Kaechele said...

Ira, the one I am debating with is the "Icebreakers" one. I can see your point on one hand, but when you list all of the kinds of activities included that seems to me to eliminate almost any activity at the beginning of the year.

The only way to get to know my students and them with each other is to communicate and that is going to take writing, talking, drawing, or something.

It seems like semantics to me a little bit because I could call the suggestions you make under #9 "icebreaker" activities.

So maybe you mean to exclude a type of activities, but I think as long as a teacher is sensitive to watching their students and not forcing reluctant students into participating than the majority of students enjoy some movement and fun things on day one.

David said...


Thanks again for allowing us all to see things from a different angle and light. You don't know how many times I cringe at all the "wisdom" given regarding setting up a class and classroom management, given by teachers and even faculty colleagues. I'll avoid here a diatribe about all the damage the Wongs' book has done to education.

I know you'll get a lot of push back from practicing teachers and they do have valid concerns/arguments. I think the underlying cause of the inability/impracticality of doing some of the things you suggest in today's schools is not just about school culture/philosophy or administration. I think one of the major unaddressed and unacknowledged problems with our school system(s) is that we have the majority of teachers teaching in classrooms of which they aren't a good match for.

Meaning, there are no bad teachers - just teachers in classrooms that they aren't suited. So many teachers not finding a "home" and place. Thus, so many problems result. I'd like to see teachers matched better with their students and even giving students a voice in which teacher they want. Why not consider students staying with the same teacher longer, multi aged classrooms? Make a classroom that is not just based on age and IQ and you'll solve a lot of problems. But even larger factor with schools mismatching teachers and classes is the economic model on which our schools are based. Teachers teach for a paycheck, taking any job they can get and being glad to get it. You'll find that school systems that are sensitive to teacher happiness and supportive of getting teachers into the "right" classroom - will do a lot more of what you listed than others.

But again, it is the underlying capitalistic model of teaching, as a trade, where teachers are widgets and interchangeable - this is the underlying problem and why many teachers can't survive while doing a lot of what you suggest...


irasocol said...


Yes, of course, and this - as I suggested in the last point - is the problem with any kind of negative list (from the Ten Commandments on), prohibiting specifics without suggesting enough good practices.

As you suggest, the key is observation and - yes - choice. If you ask me to write (that is, by hand) I am going to refuse, if I can "write" by dictating to my phone or typing on my phone, I may participate. If you ask certain students to walk across the room, they may refuse, if you let students gather in their choice of places, they may participate.

It is rarely a "type of activity" that I wish to exclude, rather it is a mindset, one that fails to consider the real needs of those in the room as they relate to movement, communication, even touch.

Knowing your teaching, I know this is not a problem for you. Knowing the mindsets of some others... well, its different.

- Ira Socol

irasocol said...


You bring up some excellent issues. The poor fit between teachers and students/classrooms is one more problem created by our industrial concept of education. Students are simply products, they will be stamped, 13 or 14 times, with our common core, by industrial robots we call "teachers." And both teachers and students are perceived as fully interchangeable.

I just spoke to some Middle School principals about the need to be much more careful in matching up teachers in teams, and teachers with students. I spoke about thinking of student/teacher combinations the way doctoral students pick their advisors/committees. We need to look at who can best support "this student's learning," and we need to consider that, and support that, at every age, everywhere.

One of the wonders of today's communication systems is that we should be able to add virtual/digital/online components to that "support committee," so I can help a student in Perth, Australia, if that makes sense, and a student in Dualla, Ireland can look to an advisor's support in Charlottesville, Virginia.

- Ira Socol

Pam said...

I am always delighted to find so many teachers across the country who manage, despite the principal, the school rules, state standards, NCLB mandates, and urban, suburban, and rural pressures, to create flexible, engaging, caring learning spaces where kids exercise choice, learn with passion, create with joy, and excel as they pursue projects of interest to them. These teachers set up collaborative situations, involve kids in setting up the learning spaces, and give permission for kids to be kids. They are the original, authentic "no excuses" teachers and it starts with their own work. Sure, sometimes they are constrained by the system, but they don't use the system as the excuse to not do what's in the best interests of learners. They look out for their kids. They see their kids as capable, competent, and caring individuals. They don't put down, "bad mouth", or disparage young people. They live core values for excellence, respect, and community offering young people their very best. You can't turn their efficacy off. I know many of them personally. I hear their voices in twitter when they chat with like-minded teachers. I read their blog posts and google+ offerings. I am in awe of them. They won't allow themselves to be confined like birds in a cage - not by "the man," the "system", the "govt", their "peers". These are the educators who inspire me every day. It's why I keep coming back to do this work because they understand every point that you make about the first , and every day, of the teaching-learning relationship. And, when they do "icebreakers", they won't let a child be embarrassed or left out of the community - they understand how to create learning spaces where every child is regarded and inside the circle.

Carolyn Durley said...

On the one hand I am offended by your opening photo. On the other, I have myself being having very strong images in my own mind, while imagining the control we exert over our children in our classrooms. I struggled with these images for myself which are simultaneously strong and graphic but firmly imbedded in good intentions I know most teachers hold dearly in their hearts.

When I was "trained" and socialized to become a "successful" teacher I was given many strategies to control by fear, threat, control of resources etc. Slowly these became the invisible fabric of the classroom, the school, the system and it becomes difficult to identify them clearly for what they are.

I am slowly re-examining my practice, but it is both a time consuming and emotional process. Like the contrast of the graphic image and the good intentions I feel. I am strangely caught between two and opposing dynamics; one is the seemingly smooth ebb and flow of operating within the system harmoniously, this is what I know how to do. The other and more violent, is the growing sense that I need to bust out, destroy, and blow up of those invisible structures I have created over the 2 decades I have been in the classroom. This too, like your image at the start, scares me to my core.

While I agree with many of your "don't do's" I also feel there needs to be room in the space I share with children for me to express who I am as a teacher and as a person. I too need space, comfort and safety, to celebrate me, and my memories of the many children I still cherish. I want it to be a shared space, not mine and not theirs, but ours, co-created and co-cared for. If we share the space we most grow a self-sustaining community of self-regulators. And that is where I will focus, on how to do that. I think with this in focus, many of your "don't do's" will follow.

Anonymous said...

This is weak. I'm pretty sure the person who wrote this is not a teacher, an inexperienced teacher, or a poor performing teacher.

I support the underlying intention of the list (for example, preserve student dignity), but the parallel to regimes is too extreme. You lose the educated people in the first paragraph.

Anonymous said...


The word makes me want to run off and hide.

The classroom is your show. Kids are not there to 'get to know each other,' they came because someone told them to come. It is not up to them to set the tone by announcing who they are or what they hope to achieve or whatever.

Being told by an authority figure to talk to a class of 30 kids who, it must be assumed, hate being there touches on all the axes where students might have problems, from disability, class, and other social hierarchies, all the way down to whether you're a morning person.

Requiring a student to introduce him- or herself means that you don't really care about any of the problems that student may have in any of those areas.

Students do not care as much as you do about this, and you can't infuse your enthusiasm into them by embarrassing them in this way.

The ice is there for a reason. :-)


irasocol said...

For "anonymous #5"

I need to laugh a bit and say that if you think, " I'm pretty sure the person who wrote this is not a teacher, an inexperienced teacher, or a poor performing teacher" (whatever that sentence suggests because the grammar is confusing), that anyone who writes, "the parallel to regimes is too extreme," has never been a student, or actually listened to a student, which is backed up by "htb"s comment just above.

I know the regime comparison has shock value. How else to shake teachers - who think tyranny in the classroom is appropriate (even short term) out of their lack of empathy?

Ever been a student trapped in a school nightmare? It doesn't feel very different than being trapped in a dystopian nightmare. And the murderous conclusion suggested comes not from me, but from one of the characters in Peter Hoeg's brilliant book "Borderliners."

- Ira Socol

TGrant said...

You are reaffirming what I try to do with my students. I wish I was always good at it. I see this work with EBD students everyday. These students see hypocrisy and will call you on it. They will question arbitrary and "mindless" rules. They will respect being treated with basic dignity. Will they always be "perfect," no.
What rings true for me is your statement "now, none of this suggests that we don't learn to negotiate all of this within our own community." My classroom is not a free for all. We do negotiate and talk about what our responsibilities are in certain contexts and situations. If we do have to follow a rule like no food or drink in the room per school rules, we all follow that rule with a discussion on workplace rules.
For me it is about building relationships, showing trust in students, and having conversations (sometimes difficult ones) with students.

Paul Martenis said...

I think that much of the negative reaction is related to your point #10. Folks aren't going to let go of assigned seats, drilling for automaticity, and bathroom passes without knowing what will replace that culture.