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Teaching & Learning

Teaching & Learning Lessons and insights from the classroom.

Time to reset your classroom clock?

How to reflect and recharge when things go wrong

This year was going to be amazing. You planned, you prepared, you knew it was going to be the best yet. But it’s not. Now what?

First, know that every teacher has experienced this—at least to some degree. Maybe there is a particular student who undermines your classroom management. Perhaps you have an entire class that just doesn’t seem to get it—or care. Whatever it is, you’re not alone. Take a minute. Breathe. Know there is help. 

When facing a tough classroom situation, your colleagues and other teachers are your greatest resource. They can help you brainstorm, reflect, and plan strategies. And, remember, colleagues can be from other schools, other districts, Facebook, or wherever. What matters is that they understand your situation. Don’t be afraid to branch outside of your school or team for advice! Find fellow educators with positive ideas and advice, not those who simply bemoan the “bad” students. You want solutions, not snark.

To get the best advice, be prepared to explain the issue and its roots. This means taking a good, hard look at yourself, your teaching, your planning, your class setup, and your students. As a seasoned teacher, I do this every day. But, it’s hard. You must honestly evaluate yourself—not just what you wanted the lesson to be, but what it honestly became for that class.

When something doesn’t work out the way you planned, consider possible causes for the disconnect. Was it because students weren’t interested in the lesson? If so, you’ll want to ask colleagues for ways they keep students engaged. Maybe a particular student was disruptive. If that’s the case, you’ll want intervention ideas for that student. Others who know this student—parents, counselors, teachers, administration, even the disruptive student themselves—may suggest insights that will help.

Did the climate of your class lean more toward fun than learning (when you wanted both)? If so, ask your colleagues about ways to reset your class expectations and goals with the students. The hardest part here is being honest with yourself. Remember, you only grow as a teacher if you reflect on your teaching honestly. Asking for help will facilitate that growth.

Once you have identified the reasons you’re struggling, you can begin to find solutions. No one solution works all the time, so ask, try, ask again, try again. What works in one situation may not work the next time. This is building your skills for the future. In a few years—maybe next year—colleagues will come to you for advice. And you will have success stories to share with the new teachers who will use them to overcome their own challenges.

Hilary Richardson, a member of the Jefferson County Education Association, has taught American government and U.S. history at Bear Creek High School in Jefferson County, Colo., since 2004.

The Assimilation of a Student Teacher

“The primary way to prepare for the unknown is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust one another. It is possible to prepare for the future without knowing what it will be.”

—Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science

One of the reasons I have stayed at the middle school level for 20 years is that I understand their need for clear transitions. So, when my principal asked me to take on a student teacher, my first thought was: How do I assimilate this person into my classroom? Seeking a smooth transition, I developed a plan to introduce my 165 students to their student teacher.

Task #1: Student Introductions

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”

—Patti Digh, author of Life is a Verb

Three weeks prior to his arrival, I informed all my classes that we’d be getting a student teacher, Mr. Depew. I described his purpose for joining us, clarified any confusion, and explained that he would gradually take over the teaching responsibilities. Each student was given an index card. They were to write their name, share a piece of information, and decorate the cards (optional).

The next day, I handed Mr. Depew the index cards along with class lists that contained student photos. His first homework assignment? Learn about his students.

Task #2: Mr. Depew’s Video Introduction

“[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”

—Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets

Two weeks prior to his arrival, I asked Mr. Depew to respond to the note cards by creating a videotaped introduction of himself. Taking a cue from our students, he shared personal facts through information and visuals. 

Students saw the 40-second video one week before Mr. Depew’s arrival, and were required to jot down information about their new teacher. Afterward, they shared—first, in groups that buzzed excitedly, and then as a class—all the facts they learned, including: He swam on his college team!

Task #3: Classroom Procedures and Survival Tips

“When you take the time to actually listen, with humility, to what people have to say, it’s amazing what you can learn. Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children.”

—Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea

The week before Mr. Depew’s arrival, I gave students two final writing prompts:

Explain, in detail, one classroom procedure that he would need to learn.

Give Mr. Depew a survival tip. What should he know about teaching middle school students in order to be successful?

Students responded to the first question with a description of how class warm ups are run, how homework is organized, and how papers are passed. They described our “Think Before You Speak” poster, which outlines our classroom culture. I could have supplied this information to Mr. Depew, but it was more engaging and meaningful coming from the students. 

Their responses to the second question were even more valuable, reflecting students’ honesty and openness. Students came right out and said, “If you don’t follow the classroom consequences, we will take advantage of you.” Others added, “Be strict but not too strict,” “Be patient,” “Have a good sense of humor,” and “Use visuals.”

On Mr. Depew’s first day, I introduced him to our students as they entered the class. Some went right over to him and started talking. Others casually glanced over as if to say: “Oh, he’s here today.” Either way, the initial first day frenzy, when someone new joins the class, was nonexistent.

Over the first four days Mr. Depew grew so comfortable and confident that, on Friday, I asked if he would like to take on the homework responsibility. He paused for a moment, and then agreed to the challenge. What happened next was the most unexpected moment of the transition. After warm ups, I informed the class that Mr. Depew would discuss homework. Without hesitation or prodding from me, the students burst into applause. Some cheered. It was genuine. They, too, were ready for Mr. Depew to take the lead. They had accepted him into their world.


Task #4: Preparation for Mr. Depew’s Departure

A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.

—Oliver Wendell Holmes

Two weeks before Mr. Depew’s departure, I spoke with each class. We discussed his reasons for joining us, and how his time as a student teacher had come to an end. Students created goodbye and thank you cards, which helped them process their feelings. They gave the cards to Mr. Depew on his last day. In return, he gave each student a small goodbye gift.

Task #5: A Thank You Video

Although Mr. Depew’s student teaching experience was over, he had one last task to complete: a video thanking the students for their cards. By reading and responding, he validated their thoughts and brought closure to the experience.


The last day of school was my daughter’s graduation, so I asked Mr. Depew to return as my substitute teacher. The students were thrilled to see him. When an educator builds genuine relationships with students—as Mr. Depew learned to do—and then mixes in structure and purposeful lessons, students trust them. Whether openly, silently, or begrudgingly, students give permission to be guided through academic and behavioral challenges.

Genuine effort requires some listening on our part. We must also allow appropriate time and space for student expression, particularly when transitions are involved. Our student teacher experience was overwhelmingly positive because I allowed the students to take the lead in welcoming Mr. Depew and introducing him to our classroom—their world. All of us were enriched by the experience.

Jenn Vadnais (@RilesBlue) is a math coach for the Redlands Unified School District in California. She writes a blog titled, Communicating Mathematically, found at She still keeps in touch with Chris Depew, now a seventh-grade teacher in Claremont, Calif.

Newbery Winner Dishes about Diverse Books

Kwame Alexander sits down with NEA Today

Poet and children’s author Kwame Alexander won the 2015 Newbery Award for The Crossover, a middle-grade novel about twin “tween” boys who play basketball and brim with preadolescent angst. The book is a mashup of poetry and prose told with the high-energy beat of a hip-hop song or an edge-of-your-seat basketball game. NEA Today talked to Alexander, a passionate advocate for literacy, to find out more about what it means to write books with diverse characters.

What motivates your writing?

KA: To be authentic and tell my story. I was a Black boy who laughed, had crushes, cried, played, felt, had friendships that were troubling, ate dinner with my family each evening. I want my writing to be a mirror for kids who look like me and a window for kids to look at a different life and recognize it as very much like their own. I want every kid to know that they are worthy, valuable, and important.

Why is the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement in children’s literature important?

KA: I had a librarian ask me if the boys in The Crossover were Black. She said she was giving a book talk and the students were going to ask. I told her I was sure they wouldn’t, but if they did to call me back. They didn’t. They didn’t care. And that’s why we need more diverse books. When kids regularly read about characters from different backgrounds or races or countries, the shared humanity of the characters becomes more important than anything else. We need diverse books to be mirrors and windows so all young people can not only see themselves in literature, but see outside themselves, which makes them more aware of our connections as human beings.

How can we encourage today’s reluctant readers to dive into books?

KA: It’s so important because it helps them become more human; it helps them have an appreciation for language and literature and to imagine a better and brighter world. If we can help kids choose books that will allow them to find their voice, they’ll become readers. When you are able to find your voice, or see your voice on a page, it is powerfully affirming. It builds confidence and opens up a world of possible for you, and we all want more of that.

Poetry can be an even tougher sell for kids. What’s the secret there?

KA: Show them that poetry is powerful. Poetry is concise. Poetry is truth. It’s not intimidating, and it can be your entrée into the world of literature. Like literature, it empowers them and lifts them up.

Teacher-to-Teacher Ideas for the New School Year

Give Your Voice a Break

Are your vocal chords feeling the strain of talking all day? Take rest periods to give your voice a breather. Give students a quiet seat assignment or ask them to do presentations so you aren’t the one talking. Try to facilitate discussions rather than leading them, which is good practice anyway. If you can get a break during lunch, enforce a “no talking” rule while you eat. When trying to quiet a noisy class, remain silent until the class settles down. Clap your hands, or turn off the lights as a way to get their attention.

Starting the Parent-Teacher Conference Dialogue

I begin parent-teacher conferences by asking the parent, “What does [child’s name] say at home about my class?” The response gets the dialogue started. I explain what we are studying and talk about how the child is doing. I point out resources available to students such as tutoring, after school study center, etc. I also ask for email addresses so I can contact parents more efficiently. I ask parents of high school seniors what their child wants to do after graduation. This helps me advise them on what classes they should take next term.

Challenging a Chatty Class

When I have had very chatty groups, I have used a strategy of marking tallies on the board for every 10 seconds that I had to wait for silence and eye contact. These tallies represented time that students would lose for working in groups. Once they saw the time disappearing, and knew they would be working alone and silently, they stopped talking and listened to whatever I needed to announce. When the issue was their volume, I used the same method and stopped marking tallies when the volume was appropriate.

Want more tips and classroom help? Check out these resources:

Works4Me Tips Archive—Search through thousands of tips from teachers like you or share your own ideas for success:

NEA edCommunities Professional Learning Community—NEA’s online, collaborative space where educators exchange ideas and resources. Sign up for free and join groups in your interest areas, including Classroom Management. Go to

Works4Me E-Newsletter—Sign up to receive tips, lesson ideas, and more with our bimonthly email. Go to

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