Free and Mandatory
by Harry and Dustin Barnes
“Free and Mandatory” is a must-read article for new teachers working to create a classroom atmosphere that is nurturing and conducive to learning. The father and son authors, Harry and Dustin Barnes, are consultants with Barnes Educational Services. Harry Barnes attended the University of Cincinnati for undergraduate and graduate school, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in education and a master’s degree in school psychology. He attended Xavier University (Cincinnati) for educational administration certification. Harry’s many professional titles include teacher, principal, school psychologist and author. Dustin Barnes earned a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University, a master’s degree in education from Bowie State University, and educational administration certification from George Washington University. Presently, he is an academic principal at Francis C. Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia. Regarding their motive for writing this article, Harry and Dustin explain:
The majority of the first year teachers whom we’ve had the opportunity to mentor and coach were trained at universities with quality education programs. They are prepared for the challenges of teaching the standards and getting students ready for high stakes testing. However, some new teachers struggle with managing behavior problems that crop up early in their first year. Combining our experiences as a school psychologist and an academic principal, we have developed a framework for new teachers to augment their pre-service training. Implementing positive, proactive, and practical behavior management strategies and initiating a plan for personal growth and wellness will go a long way in creating a nurturing environment where all students discover the joy of learning.
Ms. Turner was excited and eagerly anticipating the first day of school at Crestview Elementary. After graduating from a prestigious college of education, she made the decision to follow in her mother’s footsteps and embark on a career in teaching. For two weeks prior to opening day, Ms. Turner had worked diligently, decorating her classroom, developing lesson plans, and reviewing students’ files. She took only one day off to attend new teacher orientation, which included a school bus tour of the district, a box lunch with the superintendent, and a session on policies and procedures.
Ms. Turner had difficulty sleeping the night before opening day and was up before 5:00 a.m. Finally, the first day of school had arrived! The bell sounded at 8:00 a.m. sharp, and students entered the building dressed in their new clothes and carrying new book bags full of school supplies. The students, most of whom were as excited as the new teacher was, hurried to finish breakfast and head to their new classrooms. As she had planned, Ms. Turner stood at the classroom door and warmly greeted each student by name. She did a great job of matching their faces with the photos in their files.
As she waited outside the room for the last few students to arrive, Ms. Turner thought to herself, “So far, so good!” Meanwhile, a few students who were already in the room and out of the teacher’s view were not getting off to a good start. Jamarkus and Michael, two mischievous friends, had decided to continue the needling and put downs that they had started yesterday on the little league football field. With each word the boys exchanged, their tone grew more disrespectful. Ebony and Sarah, two self-proclaimed fashion experts, were interrogating Maria, the new girl, about her hairstyle and clothing. It was obvious that Maria was becoming uncomfortable. The last student entered the room, and Ms. Turner was able to start class. However, with everyone talking and catching up on how they spent their summer, the new teacher had trouble calling the class to order and settling everyone down. For an instant, she felt as though she did not have complete control of her class.
Upset by Ebony and Sarah’s rude comments, Maria shut down. She laid her head on her desk and refused to answer questions or respond to the teacher’s requests. Ms. Turner could not help but notice Lavonte, an energetic and pleasant little boy who seemed unable to stay in his seat. During the first hour, Lavonte made five trips to the pencil sharpener and three visits to the trash can, often touching or speaking to a classmate along the way. His disruptive behavior seemed unintentional, and he was oblivious to the fact that he was repeatedly interrupting Ms. Turner’s instructions with his questions about the lunch menu and gym class.
Despite these challenges, Ms. Turner was pleased that by mid-morning, her students had settled into the flow and routine she established, with the exception of Jamarkus, Michael, Maria, and Lavonte. Ms. Turner gave everyone a math baseline assessment to check for mastery of the multiplication and division numbers facts. However, while most students were completing the timed assignment, she observed Ryan in the back of the room reading a novel. When asked why he was not working on the assignment, Ryan politely replied that he was not interested, and that the assignment seemed to be for the “slow” kids. Ryan went on to say that he would rather finish the novel. Ms. Turner remembered seeing a current behavior plan for Ryan in his records. She recalled that his Ohio Achievement Assessment results suggested that he was a proficient learner. However, the task of implementing Ryan’s behavior plan while managing the other students seemed nearly impossible!
Later in the morning, Ms. Turner found transitioning to library and art class difficult as students had trouble staying in line, and she had to remind everyone of the no talking policy in the halls. Jamarkus and Michael even tried to go up the down staircase, which was an obvious violation of school rules. After lunch, most students quickly settled down and were back on task. However, the two cartons of chocolate milk Lavonte drank caused an elevated activity level. Jamarkus and Michael continued to yell at each other from across the room, even after Ms. Turner hinted about sending both boys to the principal’s office.
Ms. Turner asked students to partner read while she called individuals to the table in the back of the room to administer a brief reading fluency assessment. Maria complied with the reading assignment—except for the part about working with a classmate. Following Ryan’s example, Erin and Timeka decided to take the afternoon off. Using books as shields to hide their off-task behavior, both girls texted on their new smartphones, which were supposed to be used only for emergency purposes while traveling to and from school. Ms. Turner, however, observed the infraction and politely reminded the girls why their parents had entrusted them with the phones.
Just before dismissal, Ms. Turner gave the first homework assignment and asked each student to share something he or she had learned on the first day. She had to stop at one point, because Jamarkus and Michael were being disrespectful by talking over a classmate who was responding to the question. When the day was over, Maria gathered her personal belongings and left all of her class materials on her desk, which seemed to indicate that she did not intend to return to her new school. After the last student was on the right bus, it dawned on Ms. Turner that she had not eaten lunch. She felt exhausted, and the slight headache she had noticed earlier in the day still lingered.
The headache intensified when the principal called the room to compliment Ms. Turner for getting off to a good start and ask her to return a call from Maria’s mother, Mrs. Mendez. Despite her headache, Ms. Turner was comfortable making the call because she had already established relationships with all of her parents prior to the first day of school. She had taken the time to call them individually, following a script with a short introduction, a statement of classroom expectations, and a brief question and answer session. Ms. Turner also asked for suggestions about how to increase parent involvement. She had felt a particularly positive vibe with Mrs. Mendez during that introductory conversation.
As Ms. Turner expected, the phone call with Mrs. Mendez went well. According to the mother, some of Maria’s opening day jitters could be attributed to having to attend school without her older sister, who had opted to enroll in the district’s school for creative and performing arts. But Maria had already assured her mother that she would be ready to try again tomorrow. Ms. Turner remembered her own mother’s advice never to end a parent conference without saying something positive about the most important person in the parent’s life—his or her child. So she praised Maria for having complete mastery of the number facts that had been reviewed that day.
As she worked to prepare her classroom for day two and reflected on the last eight hours, Ms. Turner gave herself a grade of B-. For the most part, she felt that the first day was a success. Yes, there had been some unforeseen challenges. However, Ms. Turner was confident that by simply implementing a few positive, proactive, and practical classroom management strategies, she could alleviate the behaviors that interfered with her instruction, and create an environment conducive to learning.
Ms. Turner understood the importance of positive and respectful interactions within the learning community. Exchanges between students have to be courteous and constructive so that everyone is comfortable and willing to take academic risks. Jamarkus and Michael’s daylong feud was a classic example of how teasing and subtle put downs can easily morph into damaging words and insults. By establishing zero tolerance for negative comments, Ms. Turner will help everyone feel welcome in their new environment. Also, by engaging in positive and respectful interactions with students who were off task rather than overreacting, Ms. Turner set the tone for a stress-free learning environment. “Research has shown that teachers who interact positively with students have students who do better academically and socially” (Espin and Yale 1994).
Following her mother’s sage advice, Ms. Turner had completed the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) course before launching her teaching career. CPI is a training entity that teaches professionals how to avoid, and if need be, defuse stressful situations. The institute emphasizes the importance of identifying precipitating factors (internal or external) over which a teacher has little or no control. Displaced anger and psychological/physiological problems are good examples of this dynamic. Because of the training, Ms. Turner was able to depersonalize Maria and Ryan‘s insubordinate behavior and not overreact.
Sands Elementary School, where Ms. Turner completed her practicum, had a school-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in place. Having seen the effectiveness of the program, Ms. Turner developed a classroom model that she will begin to implement on day two. Advocates of PBIS stress the importance of the 4 to 1 ratio. By offering four positive reinforcing comments for every redirection, teachers provide students with positive messages that set a pleasant tone for the class. Ms. Turner will place visual reminders around the room in order to accomplish the goal of increasing praise while lessening the need for redirections. “Praise has been shown to increase the intrinsic motivation of students and help the learner feel more competent” (Brophy, 1983; Cameron & Pierce 1994).
One premise of the Positive Behavior Support approach is that, at times, students do not practice good behavior because they have not been taught good social skills. Knowing this theory, Ms. Turner has already set aside time in her daily schedule to teach behavior expectations. She began by writing down examples of safe, responsible, and respectful behavior in all areas of the building, and thinking about behavioral lessons that could be taught early in the school year and reviewed often. She saved PBIS websites on her computer, which allows for quick access to materials for teaching behavior expectations. One idea that Ms. Turner is eager to try is to video record students role-playing examples of safe, respectful, and responsible behavior, and use the recording throughout the year to remind them of the expectations. She plans to have her students show the video to new students to help familiarize them with the class’s behavior expectations.
On day two, Ms. Turner will have everyone complete a questionnaire that she hopes will yield information about how her students view themselves as learners. They might reveal their perceived strengths and weaknesses and share information about their interests and hobbies. In addition, she plans to collect relevant information about her students’ siblings and parents. Knowing that Maria had never attended school without her big sister, for example, would have been helpful. Perhaps allowing Maria to go to the office and call her big sister might have calmed some of the first day jitters.
While thinking about the initial difficulty she had calling the class to order, Ms. Turner remembered how all the experienced teachers at Sands Elementary had a pre-determined signal that they used to quiet students and call the class to order. While visiting another school, she observed a very energetic and capable high school teacher use the coyote hand sign to get students’ attention. The sign is made by raising the index and little finger in a vertical direction and pressing the middle and ring finger on top of the thumb to create the image of a small animal with long ears. The sign indicates ears should be up to listen and mouths closed. The high school students even used their class signal during school-wide assemblies in the auditorium with all of their friends watching! “How neat,” Ms. Turner remembered thinking. Perhaps she will use the coyote signal with her class.
Ms. Turner knows that problems and altercations between students often occur during unstructured time. When trouble surfaced while she was greeting everyone outside the classroom door, she realized that this was an instance of too much unstructured time. For day two, she will plan a short enrichment activity so students can make good use of their time before she gives the signal to start the day: She will write a problem on the board as an introduction to a new lesson and offer extra credit to students for completing the work.
Ms. Turner and Ms. Davis, another first-year teacher at Crestview, decided to meet for dinner at a restaurant near the school. While comparing notes, both teachers were surprised to find they had encountered almost identical behavior problems on the first day. They shared their planned strategies for day two. Ms. Turner and her co-worker agreed that behavior modification techniques are too time consuming and impractical for use in a general education classroom. The technique of charting and reinforcing positive behavior at intervals reaches a point of diminishing returns; eventually, the behavior improvements resulting from the technique are no longer sufficient to warrant all of the time and energy required to achieve them.
Instead of a behavior modification approach, Ms. Davis suggested they try a strategy used effectively by her supervising teacher. First, the student, teacher, and parents meet and agree on a target behavior. The teacher starts each day with five tokens. When the student displays the target behavior for a predetermined period, he or she receives a token. For each day all five tokens are earned, a positive note is sent home, and the parents reward the student. The reward can be as simple as extra time on the computer or a favorite dessert. Once the target behavior is displayed consistently, everyone meets again to revise or discontinue the plan. If the team agrees the strategy is no longer necessary, a daily progress sheet is used to monitor behavior and keep parents informed. For primary age students, a sheet with happy or sad faces can be used to indicate how the day went, while older students might need a more detailed sheet to be checked and signed by each teacher. Ryan was the first to come to mind when Ms. Turner thought about students who would benefit from this strategy. It will be great to get help from his parents because he needs to increase his time on task.
Reward System: “Caught Being Good”
Both new teachers agreed to implement a reward system for students who work hard and display safe, respectful, and responsible behavior. A token economy will go a long way in providing incentive for work completion and good behavior. Ms. Turner suggested they start a classroom economy by designing currency. Perhaps a dollar with the school’s mascot pictured on the front of the bill will be appealing.
Students can earn classroom currency for completing assignments, on task behavior, returning homework, etc. On Fridays, they can spend their money in the classroom store or save it to make larger purchases, such as a ticket for a field trip to a destination within walking distance of the school. Teachers must use creativity to find items to stock the classroom store. Perhaps items from the local church that donates school supplies could be used. For new teachers on a budget, baking cookies on Thursday nights might be a way to stock the store. The transactions in the classroom store will be used to generate math lessons that are aligned with the standards.
Prearranged Time Out
Both teachers designated time out areas in their rooms for students who are not practicing self-control. A pre-determined signal will let students know they might need to go to the time out area to calm down, or perhaps a student can choose to take a time out. As a last resort, students may be sent to the co-worker’s classroom with work to be completed during time out. Before returning from time out, students must complete a mediation sheet and respond in writing to questions such as: What caused the negative behavior? How can I make better choices? “When rule violations occur, it is important to have planned and consistent consequences that direct student attention to the specific rule they violated” (M. Stormont, 2008).
A Victim of His Own Energy
Ms. Turner knew she could not end the strategy session/dinner without discussing Lavonte and formulating a plan for him. “A victim of his own energy” is the best way to describe Lavonte. She will need assistance from the school psychologist to conduct a functional behavior assessment and implement a behavior improvement plan to help this active and very likable little boy. However, until help arrives, Ms. Turner has a few temporary strategies in mind.
One idea is to give the overly active and easily distracted student two desks. When he feels that uncontrollable urge to move, Lavonte can go to his desk on the other side of the room and work there for a period. Ms. Turner will give him a series of short assignments so he will not be overwhelmed by the amount of work he has to complete. After Lavonte finishes a short assignment, Ms. Turner will check his work and provide immediate feedback and encouragement. When Lavonte daydreams or procrastinates, Ms. Turner will place a timer near his desk and impose a time limit on each assignment. Both teachers agree to give Lavonte short breaks by letting him deliver messages to Ms. Davis’ room. Because their strategy session/dinner went so well and was so helpful, the new teachers agree to meet once a week, share ideas, and support one another.
Personal Growth and Wellness
As she was scoring the reading fluency assessments later that night, Ms. Turner realized how tired she was. “Teaching is a physically demanding job,” she thought to herself. Good teachers are on their feet all day, moving about the room, modeling new lessons, monitoring student progress, working with small groups, and traveling throughout the building. Additionally, Ms. Turner was already feeling anxious about all of the standards her students will have to master before the high stakes test in the spring. Developing strategies to cope with stress and the demands of teaching will be imperative, if she is going to have a successful and rewarding first year.
Because nutrition is so important for good health, Ms. Turner decides to plan and prepare three meals each day. She will pack a lunch to avoid being tempted when a co-worker makes the lunchtime drive to the nearest fast food restaurant for an “enjoy now and regret later” carryout. As much as she enjoys a good cup of coffee in the morning, Ms. Turner pledges to refrain from drinking it except for on Fridays and Saturdays, because she knows how caffeine interferes with her sleep. She needs eight hours of sleep Monday through Thursday to function at a peak performance level.
Over dinner, Ms. Turner and her co-worker had also talked about starting a workout routine to ensure personal wellness. Ms. Davis insisted that jogging is good for stress reduction and weight control, but Ms. Turner is a walking enthusiast and believes it is less likely to cause injury. In the end, the co-workers compromised and decided to do both. They agreed that listening to professional development audio books and podcasts would be an enjoyable bonus to their aerobic exercise routine. Finally, the co-workers discuss potential stress reduction activities for the entire staff. Perhaps an after school volleyball game or weekend bowling tournament will go over well with their co-workers and colleagues from nearby schools.
As Ms. Turner’s first day as a teacher ended, she smiled and said to herself, “One down, and 179 instructional days to go!”
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