Based in Long Beach, California, "Teach Me Mr. West" is a blog by Jason West. His posts explore the rewards and challenges of being a highly effective 21st century educator.

Teacherbag: Teacher Appreciation Week Edition

Teacherbag: Teacher Appreciation Week Edition

Welcome back to the new and improved TEACHERbag! It’s been a minute since I last wrote a post responding to reader emails. Of course, the last post had the embarrassingly uninspired title of, “Mailbag”—because nothing has EVER benefited from having an appealing name…So you're saying I should call it a ‘cheeseburger’ and NOT a meat sandwich covered in the coagulated breast milk of a cow?

Over the last few months I’ve gone back and forth trying to figure out a better title for reader email posts. I tried to think of a title that used some sort of clever acronym or rhyme scheme (I'm an English teacher, after all), but ultimately, I settled on "Teacherbag."

So why Teacherbag? Well, try to imagine a singular image of a teacher. An image that, if you simply saw it in a photograph without any context, you’d think to yourself, “Well that person is clearly a teacher.

Yep, the image of a person rolling around that big ol' teachers bag/box/cart thing—the one that's so absurdly full of papers and craft materials you secretly question its owner’s sanity. It might just be the quintessential image of our profession. So try to imagine my inbox stuffed, overflowing with questions and requests (some great and some, uh, not so great) and you’ll see why I went with the title of Teacherbag.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, the special time of year when teachers are simultaneously overwhelmed with love and cynicism. Why, thank you for the sweet note and $5 Starbucks giftcard, Johnny! It totally makes up for you being a total A-hole in my class all year! And what better way to celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week than with a new Teacherbag post with real questions from real teachers from all over the world. So let’s jump right in!

"Recently there has been a lot of talk at my school about the value of homework. I don’t understand this! When I grew up, we got homework every day! Yes, sometimes it was too much, but it usually wasn’t. Why are we suddenly supposed to be so worried about giving homework?"

-       Candice, Brighton, Massachusetts

Oh no…I see what you’re doing, Candice, and it’s not gonna work. These people don’t want another 5-part series on grading reform, and frankly I haven’t had enough caffeine this morning to go on my whole diatribe about homework. Maybe go back and read my post on the value of homework? It's a good one! Happy Teacher Appreciation week!

“What is the weirdest thing a student has asked you to smell or touch? It’s bizarre, but it happens way more often than I’d like.”

-       April, Los Angeles, CA

Uhhh…this Teacherbag post is already starting to come off the rails. Can someone please help me steer this thing back on track?

“What is your favorite thing to teach and why?"

-       Annie, Garden Grove, CA

Thank you, Annie! Whew, that was close! Thanks for asking a question that won’t give me or my readers night terrors! My absolute favorite thing to teach is Romeo & Juliet. I’ve taught the play for over 8 years to various grades (7th, 8th, and 9th) and I love teaching it every year—because who wouldn’t be excited to awkwardly explain a bunch of hyper-sexualized plot points and double-entendres to a group of overtly hormonal teenagers?

Shakespeare is intimidating, especially for young teenagers, so I use the “No Fear Shakespeare” version during our class-wide reading. But don’t confuse the modern language for a watered-down version of the story—because while the “No Fear Shakespeare” version is more approachable, my students still struggle with the rigor of the story itself. Part of our unit requires students to respond to analysis questions citing original Shakespearean language. What’s really cool is that students become so familiar with the story, they end up understanding the original Shakespearean language simply because of the context! It’s a win-win! Plus, I get to make fun of the over-dramatic nature of teenagers (to their faces!) while telling my students inappropriate jokes (not mine…Shakespeare’s, of course…what kind of weirdo do you take me for)! What more could you want out of your curriculum?

“How do you get reluctant learners to participate in class?”

-       Lindsay, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

This is not just a great question, but an important question! Other great and important questions include: How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man? And how many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand?

The answer, my friend, is bribery and relevance. Bribery and relevance will get you everywhere. Now, with bribery, I’m not suggesting you give a kid $20 to participate. What I am suggesting is that you make participation worth his while (I say “his” because it’s almost always a boy). Your bribery might come in the form of a class-wide reward—Billy, if you raise your hand and correctly answer three questions today, the whole class will get 1 extra point on their assignment (and you’ll be a hero)! Or maybe your bribery will come in the form of a parent phone call—Billy, if you complete all the work today without going over the three distractions I’ve allotted you, you and I will call home right after class to tell mom and dad what a great job you did today!

As far as relevance goes, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody willing to learn something if it has no relevance to their life. Like how I will never learn how to change the oil in my car. Sure, I know it would save me time and money—it might even make me look cool in a "1950's dad with a drinking problem” kind of way—but I just don’t care. I don’t even care enough to make up an excuse as to why I’ll never learn how to do it. I really could not care any less about learning how to change my own dirty car oil. So if your lessons are the equivalent of changing your own oil, maybe switch things up? Ask the students what interests them. Give students a voice and a choice in how they learn something. You’d be surprised at how well motivation creates deep learning. You ever notice that, within days of a new dance craze, students are suddenly experts in all the moves? That’s motivation for you!

“What is your best classroom management technique to use in your classroom?”

-       Kelli, Tracy, CA

Another great question! Boy, we really turned things around on this Teacherbag! I’m not gonna lie, it was an inauspicious start, but we really rallied back! Great job, everyone!

As for your question, I tend to use psychological warfare as my best classroom management technique. No really. Now, before you go and dub me the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh of education, allow me to explain with an anecdote that illustrates just one of the many ways I’ve effectively (and positively) manipulated the psyches of my students to get them to behave properly and learn maximally:

When I taught middle school (arguably, the most challenging age group to manage), I had this little system that kept students aware of how frequently they were losing their focus (which, in turn, pushed them toward academic success). I kept a tally of class-wide disruptions inside a little box that I drew in the bottom corner of the board using a green dry erase marker (and only a green dry erase marker). The deal was that the class had four chances to lose their collective focus before they would receive a consequence (the consequence being that they would have a pop quiz on that day’s lesson, and the logic being that perhaps the students were so unfocused because they were already experts on what I was attempting to teach them). So I gave my students four chances, which is like the three strikes rule in baseball, but with an extra strike because you're that bad at baseball—middle school students generally are that bad at controlling their energy, so I thought it was only fair to give them that extra chance.

Have you heard of Pavolov? Great, then let me remind you again how I only ever used a green dry erase marker to mark down behavioral tallies. Because, after the first few weeks of school, every single time I would even reach for the green marker, the class would start to self-regulate—Shh! He’s gonna give us a mark! He's got the marker, so shut up you guys!

I knew I had burrowed into their developing little minds when one student, almost in awe of my power, said, “It’s amazing how afraid we all are of that little green marker.”

Again, this is just one example. There are literally hundreds of ways you can use student misconceptions, preconceived notions, and basic psychology to lead your students where you need them to go (don't even get me started on the Westworld-level attention to detail I put into building my table groups). Okay, I’d better stop here before I start coming across like some creepy super villain (Oh, I’ve already done it? I’ve sufficiently made myself look like a creepy super villain and you’ve reported me to the authorities? Fair enough...).

“What is your favorite thing to do for the end of the year?”

-       Lou, London, UK

I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love my end of the year tradition! I love my end of the year tradition the way people who saw the new Avengers movie love to tell you how upset it made them. I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but the movie made me very upset. Again, I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but let’s just say I can’t believe they did some things to certain main characters. Again, I’m not going to spoil anything, but Spiderman may or may not have been impaled on Dr. Strange’s goatee (it’s a very sharp goatee…I believe he uses some sort of beard balm on that thing)

So what do I do with my students? Well I certainly don’t do anything creepy involving their psyches, I can tell you that much! [laughs nervously]

At the beginning of every year, I give my students a survey. It’s three pages with various questions (multiple choice, true/false, short answer) and allows me to instantly get to know them on a deeper level before we even begin to start the curriculum. But once I’ve read these surveys, I hold onto them and keep them in one of my cabinets until the last day of the year. At that point, I take the pile of papers and make the following announcement to my class:

I want to congratulate you all on finishing another year of school. School is never easy and you should all be proud of making it out alive (though, some of you are making it out a little more unscathed than others). And, since this is the last time I’m going to see you all in my class, I wanted to tell you all how proud I am of you and show you how much you’ve grown this year. I know that it might not feel like you’ve changed a lot, but as your teacher, I can tell you that you have changed so much that you might not even recognize the person you were when you came into this class. To illustrate my point, allow me to give you a little going-away present: A time machine from 10 months ago.

And then I call them up one by one and hand them their surveys. And it never fails: the kids guffaw at their handwriting, or their selections of “favorite TV show” and “favorite movie.” Some even wonder why they thought it was a good idea to go by whatever weird nickname they wrote down at the beginning of the year. But I love this tradition so much because it allows my students to really appreciate and value how much can change in a year. Because maybe they weren't a raving success this year, but by the end of next year, they could be. Again, school is hard and so is adolescence…and we should all be proud to have survived another year (though, admittedly, some years we make it out a little more unscathed than others).

Okay, last question. I’m afraid to even look because we’ve been on such a good roll and I’d hate to wreck this momentum…

I see that you are a big tea person, so I’m sure you already knew that ginseng tea is an aphrodisiac that also strengthens your libido. So my question is, how many kids do you have/are planning to have Mr. Tea Man?

-       Jillian, Los Angeles, CA

Yeah, okay. We’re done here. Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, everyone!

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing

The Interview

The Interview