Day Nine: My Biggest Teaching Accomplishment – Finding My Most Powerful Tool

I may be a bit naive, but about once every few weeks I decide that I have just completed the best lesson of all time. I am so thrilled with myself that I run next door to any of my available colleagues and tell them that I have just taught the perfect lesson. They say, “That’s great, Martha. I can’t wait to hear more about it,” and go back to their work, knowing that I get a little overly excited sometimes. So, I have mini-teaching breakthroughs that happen regularly enough to keep me motivated and looking for new and fresh techniques.

BUT – there is something that I can say is my ONE best accomplishment – and it’s huge. It is classroom management. I must make this clear: things are certainly not perfect in my classroom, and I don’t have one hundred percent control at all times, but everything runs pretty smoothly these days.

Discipline is not my specialty. I would rather sharpen pencils all day long than discuss rules and procedures with eye-rolling teenagers. But, teaching an unruly classroom is just as effective as taking notes with a broken pencil tip. So, a well-managed classroom is a must for any of us who want to teach kids well.

After an evaluation one time I decided that I needed to be tougher on the kids – firmer, stricter, more demanding and less friendly…. I tried hard for a few days, but it just wasn’t my style, and I couldn’t keep up being Mrs. Mean.

I had two classroom management issues. First, I couldn’t get the class quiet in order to give instructions and teach a lesson. Second, I used to have students that didn’t like me and that wanted to argue with me. Those students, and their negative attitudes, occupied too much of my time, and it made me neglect the students who were eager to learn.

I have figured out that it’s not just “experience” that improved things, but it was a change in my relationship with the students.

At the beginning of each semester I started to figure out which students came in to the classroom with issues and would become my “problem” students. I learned to “stereotype” them – not by race, gender, or academic talent, but I could stereotype them according to their attitudes. I learned to treat the negative, sinister, teacher-defying scowls with “cool” compassion. I am not overly ooey gooey with them, but I become interested in their lives – their families, their jobs, their friends, their music, whatever I could find to discuss with them. I love doing this, and some of these kids have fascinating stories and are eager to have someone who is interested in them. People feel valued when we are asked for information that is specific to us. It doesn’t take much time to ask those questions; I am not having lengthy conversations while I am helping the students with their work. How many seconds does it take to ask “How is your Mom’s job going?” Just a couple, right? It’s worth the time.

I also avoid sarcasm. I used to think that it was fun to make sarcastic comments, and I know that some teachers are able to do this effectively, but it can yield a negative tone. We laugh and have fun with one another, but sarcasm isn’t part of the humor toolbag anymore.

Calling students by name, however, is my most powerful tool. Using someone’s name, and even better, giving them a nickname, makes students feel special. I have students who visit me after they have graduated or been out of my class for a while, and they come back and wait for me to call them “Al Pal”, “Kay Kay”, “Bobby C.”, or whatever name I had come up with for them. Often I use their first and last name together.

Think about what it feels like to hear the sound of YOUR first and last name together – not when you are in trouble, but as a greeting. It makes you feel important, even famous.

Some people will say that they are not good with names. Well, we are teachers. We need to be good with names. We are in the business of public relations, and the “inability” to know names is equivalent to wearing your pajamas to work. Knowing names comes fairly easy to me; I am lucky. However, I work pretty hard at it at the beginning of the year. I take notes and memorize names and people – just like students memorize the preamble to the Constitution. I practice until I get it right.

Because my students know that I value them, they listen to me when I ask them to be quiet while I am speaking (or while someone else is). I rarely have a”problem” student, and when I do, I end the negative relationship pretty quickly

Like I said, it’s not perfect – some days are better than others in terms of classroom management, but I finally feel like I am in control and have set a positive tone for the classroom.

So, dear Teacher Friend, best wishes to all of us as we work to manage our classrooms everyday.

Rita Pierson, a Lifelong Educator, gives a really powerful message on the importance of building relationships. It is a MUST-SEE!

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Day Eight: My Desk Drawer – my battle with purple pens & how I plan to win the war with the pen!

What’s in my desk drawer? Lots of pens, pencils, highlighters, erasers & whiteout. I use purple Bic pens for grading, and there is always an unbalanced distribution of those pens in my life. I keep the purple pens in one of these places: my car, my kitchen, my purse, my briefcase, behind my ear, and in my desk drawer at school.  Today I reached into my purse and found four purple pens. I don’t need four purple pens in my purse. I have to redistribute them tomorrow. Mondays are always busy, and the redistribution of pens isn’t important enough to make it to my “to do” list, but if I don’t do it, I will feel scattered. That is an example of why Mondays are “Mondays”. Reorganizing the little things requires time and distracts from the higher priority issues.

Tomorrow I am going to start using socrative.com and I am really looking forward to it. It is an online quizzing tool for my students that will require less usage of pens. Chalkup.co is another tool I plan to implement this week – designed for fewer pens and more online grading. I will report later on how those are working for me. Thanks to my colleague Matt East for introducing these to me. He works on the other side of campus, but we communicate often through Twitter, my favorite social media tool.

One quick note: I am slowing down on my blogging. I plan to continue my 30 day challenge, but it will take me longer than 30 days to write 30 posts. Yes – I am differentiating from many of you by going at a slower pace than I originally anticipated. I have gotten behind on grading, planning, and family time. I love the reflection, but I have to do some actual/real work so that I can find material to reflect on! Thanks to those of you who are reading, and Blog Day 9 will be coming one day soon….

Day Seven: Who Inspires Me the Most? Reminiscing my days at Lakeside High School in the ’80’s

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For those of us in my profession, I think that it is comical yet strange that WE ARE STILL IN HIGH SCHOOL. There is a transition from being a student to a teacher, and while there is a vast difference in those two periods, we think often about our own days as high school students. Probably with much more frequency than non-teachers do.

From my former life as a high school student, here is a list of my favorite teachers and WHY they made a difference:

Ms. Diane Loring (English) – Her sharp wit and sly (but loving) smile was so fun. I enjoyed trying to figure out if she was telling the truth or not. Her tall tales kept me wondering…. I loved English, and I still do.

Ms. Mary Shelfer (English) – She and Ms. Loring were best friends, and I learned the value of strong relationships in the workplace. I also read great literature. She introduced me to my favorite book, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and to the great acting of Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

Ms. Charleanne Pugh (Biology) – She was the most bubbly, spunky teacher I had. I loved asking questions and kept my hand raised because I loved having conversation with her. She never tired of all my questions and filled me with knowledge.

Ms. Joann Williams (AP Chemistry) – She showed dedication to teaching such a challenging subject , and her attention to detail in working problems was impressive. I ran into her recently at church with my parents, and while I spoke to her I knew that she wouldn’t understand how often I think about her.

Mr. Ralph Voris (Trigonometry & AP Calculus) – He was one of the quietest, most stoical men I have met, and his interest in teaching nutty high school kids intrigued me. He was filled with wisdom, and his motivational quotes in the top corner of the board were a window to his non-calculus thoughts. Those quotes are written down in a faded notebook that smells of old paper. I also discovered that the reward of learning something intensely difficult would prove greater than the temporary pain of the 2nd period stress-induced headaches.

Mr. Robert Koff (Math) – He was lively, kooky, and nerdy, and he was passionate about teaching us math. He ran around the room answering our questions, and he was the opposite of Mr. Voris. Teaching high school seemed like the perfect fit for him. (Kooky and nerdy are all GOOD things in my book, btw). One time I inadvertently wrote my last name wrong – I wrote the last name of my rock star crush. He quietly asked me if I had changed my name – out of concern for any changes in my family status. I was embarrassed, needless to say, and told him that everything at home was the same.

Coach Phil Lindsey (Health, PE) – He taught me to understand the importance of nutrition and how I am ultimately responsible for my own health. He taught me the enjoyment of walking and running. Although I can’t estimate distances in feet or yards at all, I know EXACTLY what it feels like to walk (or even drive) 1/4, 1/2 or 1 mile because of all those laps around the track. He was head coach of the football team, but he made me, a small, soft-spoken fourteen year old girl, feel equally as important as as the touchdown-scoring, rowdy football players that were featured in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution every week.

Ms. Evelyn Brady (Spanish) – She told us funny stories of her crazy life. One story I remember was the time she bought a new Volkswagen bug, but before she drove off the dealership lot the salesman had to teach her to drive a stick shift. He probably regretted making the sale. She owned a big pet snake (a boa?) which always brought interesting stories as well. There was always a student who was getting on her last nerve, and with her exaggeration and big emotion, she could have been a standup comedian. Lucky for us, she was a Spanish teacher.

Ms. Diane McKinney (Chemistry) – She was famous for her molecule dance, and her high energy level kept everyone engaged. She laughed a lot and loved being outdoors. We used bunsen burners and created formal lab reports in composition books. I learned why scientists use pen, not pencil, for recording data, and I still  treasure my composition book from tenth grade.

Mr. Bill Driskell (World History) – Wow! There is so much to say here. Mr. Driskell created nicknames for us. He called me Miss Newhouse because of my last name, Villanueva (which means New House). I loved that. I was special enough to earn a nickname. Our class ate lunch together and had a longer period (due to the class being split with driver’s ed which was taught in Norcross). Because of our extended time he would sit and play games with us during lunch or participate in our teenage conversations. He talked about his family; he was silly, goofy, and way too much fun! He was so expressive and could have rivaled Mrs. Brady for being a standup comedian. Plaid pants and bow ties showed up frequently in his wardrobe.

The best part of the story is that Mr. Driskell’s son was Ken Milam’s roommate at the Sigma Nu fraternity house at Georgia Tech in 1991. Had it not been for Logan Driskell, I would have never met the man who is now my husband. I saw Mr. Driskell not too long ago and told him that I have been teaching high school in Coweta County. His face lit up, and a big smile, filled with years of memories, beamed across his face. “Isn’t it fun?!“, he asked.

Yes, it is fun. There is no other job that I could enjoy as much as this one.

Not only did our teachers contribute so much to all of us who graduated in the 80’s, but their passion for teaching kids lives on through those of us who have filled their shoes….

Thanking you is not enough, but Thank You.

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September 11: What YOU Will Do to Honor Our Country

This is the 9/11 message I send to all my current and former students:

It’s a day to reflect on September 11.  One way to keep our country strong is to be relentless with learning.  You need to learn all you can so that you can help make our nation stronger by developing the best technology, engineering, materials, and medicines in the world.

One of your goals for your education is to prepare yourself for a future for which you do not yet know – you’re not just learning facts.  You are learning how to analyze, predict, think and create; these are the skills that the great leaders and scientists have implemented that have led us from tough times into great times for our nation.

It is YOUR responsibility to determine how you can make our nation stronger. You can do this with your talents and abilities, but it is mostly your dedication to hard work and continual learning that will make the difference and propel the United States to a great future.

Day Six: Two Traits of a Good Mentor

There are two traits required for Effective Mentorship:

1) Close physical proximity and an open door policy...
The only time I was a good mentor was when I worked directly across the hall from my mentee. Since she didn’t know what she needed help with until the moment it needed to happen, she had to be able to ask questions and get quick answers. For example, five minutes before a conference, when grades are due to be posted, after a parent phone call,…. I could help her as the moments evolved.

2) A positive attitude. This is really important. New teachers can be swayed “to the dark side” if they get the wrong mentor. Some teachers are better than others at instilling a productive attitude in others, so choose mentors judiciously.

Day Five: How Can I Change My Classroom? Bring Out the Demolition Crew!

This is the only way problems will be solved. Just look at science. Theories are disproven in order to be proven. Not all scientists took the same practical means in order to discover their theories. They tested their experiments differently from the aforementioned scientists.


My classroom is a good size, and we have lab tables that work well for doing labs and for group work. Below you see an older photo, and the desks are lined up in traditional rows. Better for lecture days, but not as good for labs and cooperative learning. For the new year I arranged the tables lengthwise in pairs that seat a group of four students.

We are lucky that we are undergoing renovation right now, and I am only 6 weeks away from getting a bit of an update on my room. I mentioned on “Day One: Goals for the New Year” that I intend to apply for some grant money to get a whole new set of furniture that is up-to-date with technology and efficient learning methods. If I can obtain the needed money, I anticipate that it will still be over a year before any new furniture arrives.

My room is just too small for the way I have it arranged. I cannot easily walk between the desks, and the students are not very mobile either. What I need to do is get rid of the big, huge, enormous demonstration desk-table that is built into the floor. In fact, I am considering asking that the construction crew chop it down. Demo it. Axe it.

While the table space is great, its monstrous size completely BLOCKS me from my students when I am teaching them. I use a Ladibug, a document camera that I love, to work problems for them. You see a pic of me (in a purple shirt) behind the desk working problems, but where I like to be is in front of my desk, in close proximity to the students. In the photo of me in the lab coat – my position is ideal in that spot, but there is no work surface for me to use the Ladibug. SO – I rarely stand there b/c I can’t be productive and model problems.

Getting rid of the desk would allow me to bring the students closer to me and give us all enough space to walk around the tables. A smaller, mobile desk would be perfect for the Ladibug station and would have plenty of room to store my stuff. All the file folder drawers that were originally installed years ago are no longer necessary. I use Dropbox.

So, bring on the construction crews. Let’s do some demolition and give the kids the freedom and space they need to learn.

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Day Four: The TWO Things I Love Most About Teaching

I LOVE teaching. There are specifically 2 reasons that I enjoy my job.

1) STEM Career Coaching

My grandmother used to talk to her grown children frequently about their jobs. Of course she was concerned about family, kids, home, but career has always been important to my family. It’s genetic. You spend SO much time working. Not just the everyday, but across your entire life. It is important to have a fulfilling, enjoyable career because it is a huge part of life.

Many of our students don’t have someone who know much about the STEM in their careers, so I enjoy helping my students think about their options. Careers that require STEM include: doctor, electrician, cosmetologist, radiology assistant, auto mechanic, farmer, graphic designer, photographer, engineer, chef, builder, athletic trainer,…. You get the idea. Everyone uses STEM!

The students who take the hard core STEM jobs …I teach them in AP Chemistry, coach them in science Olympiad, or guide them to become a STEM intern with a local business. If they can narrow their focus in high school, they can get a head start on where to concentrate when they get to college.

2) I love high school kids. I can have regular conversations with them like I would with other adults, BUT high school kids like to have a bit more fun than adults do. And so do I. I like goofing off and being silly, and that works well in the classroom. I just read a great blog post by Heather Hollands and Amy Latinen, and Heather mentioned wanting to “engage all students” this year as one of her goals. Goofing off (in the right context) while teaching chemistry is my way of engaging students. They tend to stay focused a bit more because they don’t want to miss anything.

There is definitely more that I love about teaching, but this will be enough for now…..

@marthavmilam

Teachers Who Love Teaching Quote Back To School Quotes For Teachers

Day Three: Teacher Evaluation Goal – Including Differentiation in My Lesson Plans (& why I DON’T want to do it!)

I will have to say that the part of our TKES (Teacher Keys Effectiveness System) in which I am weakest is DIFFERENTIATION. I don’t PLAN it into my lesson plans like I need to do for the teacher evaluation process.

After reading a little bit on the subject, it seems that there are three terms: Differentiation, Personalized Learning, and Individualization of Learning. I personally don’t have an interest in spending much time “differentiating” among these three, but I will discuss them because it is an interesting concept. “Personalization” is not something that teachers can provide – it’s what those of us who are reading this blog are doing: directing our own learning. I do encourage students to do such, however.

I realize that I am a long way from documentation of individualized learning. I work about ten hours a day, I never get my daily goals completely accomplished, and I don’t do a good job of differentiating in my lesson plans. That being said, individualization is not on my radar as a “planned” goal. I already give up here.

Now – do I DO individualized learning with students? Of course! Most teachers do….We see how or why a student is struggling OR why he/she is so far advanced, and we create an explanation or a question specifically for that student. That is individualized teaching (learning?-doesn’t matter what you call it in my opinion). Am I going to spend time to put that in my lesson plans? No.

Do I differentiate? Of course – same as above. Most teachers do. Is it important to put that in my lesson plans? Not in my opinion, but that’s because I know I am doing it – so documenting becomes is a burdensome task. I suppose that with 150 teachers at our school it needs to be documented somewhere in case someone might possibly want to see it. Although I hope that I do the right things most days, I know that others may be falling short and that documentation should be required.

It’s only my third blog, but it’s already time for me to reveal that I am not a fan of educational drama. I know that those outside the classroom love to research the latest and greatest things that those of us in the classroom should be doing, but to me good teaching is just a combination of “teacher sense”, professionalism, loving kids, content knowledge…and enough sleep.

Back to the goal. I WILL include differentiation in my lesson plans – and the best part of this is that I work with a great team of peers and a supportive administration. We will work together to accomplish this task so that I can get a check mark on my teacher evaluation. And so that I can go to sleep at night.

@marthavmilam

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Day Two: My Technology Goal for the Year – Designed for Cross-Curricular Learning

One of our school STEM goals for the year is to create and implement cross-curricular (integrated) lessons. I am hoping to partner my AP chemistry students with students in both AP Literature and AP Microeconomics. In order to connect students with classes that do not meet at the same time we will use a web tool like Canvas Infrastructure. This platform allows teachers to assign lessons and allows students to communicate with one another and with their three teachers (yikes!). Canvas Infrastructure provides a user-friendly forum for cross-curricular projects and learning.

Read Ben Johnson’s blog featured on edutopia.org for inspiration and guidelines on how to plan with a cross-curricular team. Also see a video produced by Ken Ellis on the topic of Integrated Studies.

@marthavmilam

The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next. —Abraham Lincoln

Whenever you're feeling like giving up, remember these words.