I've always said, if you become an expert at keeping all your students engaged in the lesson, you will work as a teacher for as long as you want. New teachers should focus on making their lessons accessible and interesting to their students. Unfortunately, with all that they have to learn those first few years, new teachers are hard pressed to create those interesting lessons on a consistent basis. Here are a few ideas to help new teachers keep students engaged.
Good Peer Pressure—Competition Between Classes - Use competition between classes to increase your volunteer participation. One day earlier this year, I had allocated a certain amount of time for presentations. I found, however, that I wasn't getting enough volunteers to present. I started thinking that I may have too much time left over, and with 8th graders, that is asking for trouble. I began counting out loud how many students had volunteered. I told them that the other class might have more volunteers, but I also told them that it wasn't a competition. They didn't believe me. All of a sudden, students began to pressure other students to raise their hand to present. I ended up having too many presenters, and I had to cut one of the activities from the agenda. Sometimes peer pressure can be a teacher's friend.
You Get What You Get - I used to spend hours dividing my students into groups based on ability levels and such. Isn't that what we were taught in teacher school? I've found that random grouping is just fine. The groups almost always work out to have students of different ability levels. Very rarely do I end up with a group of all low students or all high level students. When that does happen, all I do is move kids around.
Name Cards - There are different ways to randomize students for different activities. I use name cards. I write the names of each student on a 3X5 card, and use them when I want to create groups or when I want to select random students to answer a question. Some teachers I know use Popsicle sticks, but I find that cards are easier to use.
Safe Presentations - I always preface my student presentations with my speech: “During the presentations, there is no talking - no inappropriate laughing -no negative comments. If I have to stop the presentation to tell you to be quiet, it's a detention automatic." If you don't set the rules strict for your student presentations, then your students won't feel safe enough to present in the future. You may have to make an example of someone to send the message.
Is It Homework? Wait till last minute to assign homework - Students ask, “If we don't finish this, is it homework?" if I say, “Yes," what happens? You guessed it, the students stop working and they start socializing. Then it gets louder and louder, and then the principal will walk in, and well, it looks bad when the students aren’t doing anything. I always tell them “No,” then change my mind about 5 minutes before the bell rings.
Row By Row - Collect papers row by row. Many times, you won't know who didn’t to the homework until you grade it, and by that time it may be too late. I always collect the homework by rows. If there are five students in the row, and I only get four papers turned in, then I want to know who didn't do it, so I can ask why. It is a little embarrassing for the student, and that's OK. I wouldn’t spend more than 10 seconds in the discussion, but those 10 second of attention may deter that student from missing the next homework. It also makes a row celebrate when everybody has their homework, and I say, "Good row."
Easy Access - Post homework / class work where students can access it. - If a student is absent, how do they know what they missed? There has to be someplace where they can go instead of to you. I have all my homework posted online, but you can have a homework calendar or a homework folder or some place that you can point to when a student asks you what they missed.
Wall of No Names - No-Name papers on wall. I like taping the no-name papers on my white board. This way when students walk into my class, they will notice right away that their paper is missing a name, and they can add it. Other teachers have a no-name folder where they put all the papers missing an owner, but the problem with this is that the soonest a student will know of the missing assignment will be when grades are posted or when the papers are passed back, and that may be later than you want. If they’re on the wall, it may clutter up your white board a little, but at least you will be able to finish grading the assignment earlier.
No Down Time – As a middle school teacher, this is commandment number one. Any down time that you have with 8th graders can be bad. Do your best to have the next lesson flow right after the first one. Any extra time can be just what those hormone-driven students need to start something that will take a lot of time to stop. 5 minutes of down time can lead to 10 minutes of refocusing. In those ten minutes, you'll start getting frustrated, and you'll lose focus, and that will make for a bad day. So unless you have a class-full of angels, keep things moving. No down time.
Opening Routine - Get a routine set up for beginning the class. Kids need a little stability and structure especially in the beginning of the class. Make it a routine that allows you to take attendance, pass out or collect the homework, etc. You can change it up every now and then, but that first 5-10 minutes of the class needs to be a time that can run on autopilot.
Ask Me in 5 Minutes – This is one of my all time favorite strategies. There will be students who will come up and ask to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom. Sometimes it's legitimate, and you'll know when. Other times, however, you'll be a little suspicious that the student really doesn't have to go. He / She just wants to go meet someone outside or wants to walk around or just doesn't want to be in the class. In those times, I respond by saying, “Ask me in 5 minutes.” If a student really has to go, he/she will be back in 5 minutes. Most of the time, I've found, the student who really didn't have to go will forget or the “need” will pass or the next activity in class will take his/her mind off the request. I use this every day almost, and it never fails – the student never comes back to ask me again.
Substitute Days Tip #1 Have a current seating chart. This is so important for the sub. Spending two years as a substitute teacher, I know how important it is to be able to identify the “talker” by name.
Substitute Days Tip #2 Assume you're getting someone who isn't competent. Most substitute teachers know how to read directions. They should at least have a college degree, but some subs are just lame. They can’t or they won’t follow your plan, and they’ll spend the day sitting at your computer updating their Facebook status while the class goes crazy. Don’t give instructions where the sub has to actually teach. The most your sub should do is pass out an easy to follow worksheet or press play on the DVD or VCR.
Substitute Days Tip #3 Don't expect to grade what students do on a sub day. You are not there, so you don’t know if the work was actually completed by the student. The substitute may have not given out complete directions. Don’t make the work that the students do with the sub worth that much.
Substitute Days Tip #4 Leave your phone number with sub. – Expect that you have forgotten something or that the sub needs some clarification on the instructions.
Substitute Days Tip #5 Teach a student how to run technology. Your VCR or DVD player may be different from the one that the sub is used to. The day before you’re going to be out, teach a responsible student how to run the machine. Leave the name with the sub, so if he/she has any problems, the student can help out.