It can sneak up on you quickly.
Your students, after all, are eager to please. They want to do well. Many are determined to turn over a new leaf, to put the past in the past and start afresh. Every new year of school is a clean slate, a chance to get it right.
So, in the first couple of weeks, it’s easy to get lulled into feeling like you got it wired, like you got this teaching thing down. Your students are happy. Attentiveness is good. And misbehavior has yet to become an issue.
But just below the surface there is a danger lurking, a danger that can lullaby even the most vigilant teachers to sleep at the wheel. You see, as soon as the excitement of a new school year wears off, as soon as the novelty loses its luster, it’s natural for things to begin fraying at the seams.
If you look close, lo about the third week of school, you’ll notice a smidgen of sloppiness in the way your students line up for lunch or turn in their homework or gather themselves into groups.
Nothing drastic, mind you. Nothing particularly eye-catching. But it’s there.
They raise their hand per your modeling, perhaps, but start talking before you call on them. They dawdle a second or two longer before following your directions. They jostle or murmur under their breath or look away as you teach a lesson.
You find yourself repeating the same things again and again, talking louder, feeling the first pangs of frustration.
Now, for many teachers, this natural phenomenon, this slow but sure retrogression of general behavior and attentiveness, doesn’t occur to them until it’s too late—if it occurs to them at all.
And so they’ll remind. They’ll warn and threaten. They’ll harp and harangue on the importance of listening, performing routines, and giving a good effort. But for the most part, it falls on deaf ears—because the students are too far gone.
They’re so far down the ski slope that they can only hear the echoing of your voice. The dewy leaves are already turning brittle. And the distractions . . . the distractions grow greater every day.
Your only choice, then, is to start over, to wipe the slate clean, to begin from the beginning, as if it’s the first day of school all over again. Of course, because you no longer have a captive audience, this is made more difficult the second time around.
Better to capitalize on an open, eager, and malleable class right from the beginning.
Doing so, however, takes a bit of shrewdness. It takes proactivity. It takes being a stickler for the little things—those that may not seem so important at the time. It takes a strategy that, when employed from day one, need not be used very often.
It’s a strategy that has become a mantra among the most exceptional teachers, for it promises to draw out the best in your students—whether the first week of school or the last.
The strategy is this: Never move on until you’re getting exactly what you want from your students. In other words, don’t transition, start your lesson, continue the work, make the project, work in groups, or anything else unless your students are meeting the standards you’ve set for them.
Usually, this takes nothing more than a pause. Other times, though, you may have to stop them in their tracks, rewind to the beginning, and start again.
But if you stay true to what you want, if you stay true to what you know your students are capable of, then you’ll never lose control of your class. You’ll never feel like a comedian dying on stage. Is this thing on?
Instead, you’ll ensure that active listening, attentiveness, and sharply performed routines are part and parcel to being in your classroom. You’ll ensure good habits, maximum time-on-task, and optimal learning.
You’ll ensure confidence in knowing that you’ll never have to prod, plead, remind, or merely hope things will get better.
When you steadfastly refuse to continue on and on, unsatisfied and unhappy with what you’re seeing in your students, there is no telling what can be accomplished. There is no telling the surprises in store. There is no telling the staggering progress your students will make.
Boundless and life-changing.
Eyes affixed beyond their surroundings, beyond their everyday existence . . .
To the infinite stars in the sky.
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