Teacher Readiness Series #1:
I’m not nearly as concerned about student readiness for school as I am about teacher readiness. I say this because no matter what we do and how much we work with students and parents, students are going to show up every day in all kinds of conditions with wide variation in their readiness to learn. Who can most effectively bring the students to a similar learning readiness state each day? It’s not primarily the parents nor the students, it’s the teacher.
How did it go for you as a teacher this past fall? If you’re are like me, you’d like to make some improvements after holiday break. This series is going to focus on the primary grades, but the principles will have application though out educational settings (even if you teach adults).
We are going to begin thinking about working memory and how we can help our students. Your students can only keep a few things in mind at one time. The younger they are, the more difficult it is to keep the one or two things you want in their working memory to be there.
What is working memory? Think of it as your student’s ability to keep a few ideas in mind and do something with those ideas. For example, you ask them to add two plus three without using paper, pen or calculator. The two and three go into their short-term memory, and they manipulate the two and three in their working memory to produce five.
If your student’s capacity is three things in working memory, and they already have three things in their working memory, this means that unless your student drops one of those items, they’re likely not listening in the way you’d like them to listen. Sometimes when working memory is full, a student is not even capable of hearing you.
Let’s say your student arrives having had dad yell at them; they’re upset, and having left their backpack on the bus; they’re concerned. Likely, for a primary student, those two concerns are dominating their working memory, and they don’t have room for your lessons unless you help them.
How can you help them? Have a morning routine that 1) provides direct contact between you and every student, allowing you to understand and work with their readiness to learn, 2) engages them in a known activity in which they can all be successful, which also allows you to assess who needs the most readiness help, and 3) reminds them that they are in a safe place.
What might direct contact look like? A look, a word, a touch. As your students enter your room, teach them to look you in the eye (we’ve been successful with all kinds of kids over the course of the year, even those with autism), smile at them and make a positive statement with a required response (I’m happy to see you…thank you Mrs. Millie I’m happy to see you) or ask a positive question that requires a response (what was something good that happened this morning?), and put your hand on their shoulder, shake hands, give a high five or in some other appropriate way provide physical contact. Make this a consistent, safe routine. If another teacher or parent wants your attention during this routine, ask them to wait. If the student has nothing good to tell you or gives you a sad vibe, you have just been given a big clue that it has been a rough morning, and that student will need some extra help.
What might a routine look like? One good routine from second grade was after a look, a word and a touch, students put their coats and back packs away, proceeded to their desks and wrote about a happy happening with no critique of their writing while they listened to Pharrell Williams quietly sing Happy. After a few minutes, some of the students (randomly chosen by the teacher) would briefly share their happy happening, then the music would come back on and every one would do a happy movement routine together for a minute or two and the instructional day would then begin.
What does safety look like? Every morning you will have at least one blessed student who does something that violates, or comes close to violating your safe place. This is the time to point out to the students that this is a safe place, remind them what we don’t do, and always tell them what we do do, and show them how it looks. First, find someone who is demonstrating the right behavior and tell them, “Michael thank you for keeping your hands and feet to yourself. Remember Conor, we don’t poke people when we come in, this is a safe place and to keep us safe, we keep our hands and feet to ourselves. Thank you Michael and Conor for giving us the opportunity to talk about how to keep this room safe.”
I cannot stress how important it is to have a safe, predictable routine to start your student’s day. This will help you get those few spots in their working memory ready to work with you. Your routine will be a tremendous help in them being learning ready, and you, as the teacher, are the only one who can successfully do this for a classroom of students.