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Techniques Magazine Article

Teaching Smarter
Sandy LaBelle

Would you like a classroom where students are more motivated to take pride in their work? A place where students take more responsibility for their choices and decisions? Would you like a classroom where there are very few behavior problems and disrupters are not supported by their peers? Would you like to begin every class period relaxed and well planned? Would you like to handle less paperwork while maintaining or increasing the quality of your lessons? How about spending less time per day on school, and having no school work on the weekend?

What if someone could design a program that could do all this AND show you how to teach to higher level thinking skills - with less paperwork than you now have?

Not so long ago, I dreamed of this situation, but I didn’t know how to achieve it. I looked for someone to help me. However, no one was telling me exactly HOW, and everything I thought of just put more work on my already-full plate. I kept working harder and harder, until my health began to suffer. Some of you may be experiencing the same things: headaches, frequent colds, body aches or waking up in the middle of the night going “What can I do, What can I do?” Finally, I came to a difficult decision, manage my school day better or leave teaching.

I did not want to leave teaching so I decided to step out of the teaching world and research business management techniques. After all, I thought, teachers manage people, we make presentations every day, we need to know how to handle difficult people, we have multiple projects, and we need to meet deadlines. Maybe some ideas from the business sector could be modified to create more efficient and more effective use of my time at work!

I combined my B.A. my M.Ed. and more than 100 additional college credits with my 29 years of experience in both elementary and secondary classrooms along with the business world research to develop new ways of effectively and efficiently managing the classroom.

I have developed a model to provide specific techniques addressing the questions presented at the start of this article. My ideas are not specific lesson plans, but rather management techniques one can use EVERY DAY to reduce stress and fatigue, while producing more responsible students who are creating higher quality work.

A phrase I learned from one of the business management courses kept ringing in my ears - “DO THE BEST JOB YOU CAN IN THE TIME THAT YOU HAVE.” It has been my experience that teachers do not have a problem with the first part of this sentence. We are doing the best job we can! The place we have trouble with is the second part, “in the time that you have.” If we are not satisfied with our quality, we rob from our sleep time and come in early, then we rob from our private time and stay late. Sometimes that’s not enough, so we take work home during the week. Next thing we know, the work is coming home on the weekend too. I want to share with you, we can do a quality job without coming in early, staying late and sacrificing our private time. A quality job can be done by changing the way we “do business” in our classroom. Classroom management skills are very teachable, but seldom taught in a specific take-back-to-your-classroom and use tomorrow form.

For this article, I have chosen some of the quick and easy tips contained in my book, “Teaching Smarter”, and explained in seminars. Please be aware, there are over 180 pages in my book. Teaching Smarter information is taught in seminars over a period of several days in order to cover most of the techniques. Just keep in mind, there is much much more than what I can share with you today! In fact, some of the best ideas take more time to explain than we have today. So, I will “do the best job I can in the time we have.”

First hint: There’s a radio station everyone likes to listen to. Its call letters are WIIFM. WIIFM stands for What’s In It For Me? I’ve found many teachers play station WIIFM exclusively in mono, thinking about only what’s good for kids. The obvious answer to that question frequently involves more work for the teacher. I will show you a few of the ways to play WIIFM in stereo (What’s good for kids and teachers?). It takes a shift in the way we think about instruction, and an increased focus on the purpose of our lessons. However, I guarantee you will feel less stress, and there will be an improvement in the quality of student work. It’s OK to think of yourself, as well as the students, because where there is less stress, creativity can flourish, and that’s good for kids!

Second hint: Set the stage for class to start on time. Play music before class starts. Find some calming music you enjoy, and play it during between-class breaks. The purpose of the music is to help the students transcend from the hub-bub of the hallways to the environment for learning. The students like this idea. I even had one student come in and say, “Mrs. LaBelle, coming into your classroom is like coming into a nice restaurant!” Now, I don’t know about your classroom, but it takes a lot of visual imagination to think of my classroom as a nice restaurant! But the music is that powerful in setting the scene for learning.

One more suggestion about the music idea, buy as big a boom box as you can afford—because big radios do not fit in book bags!

Third hint: Start class on time. If we want the students to value the start time, WE must value the start time. The students know that no matter what we may SAY, it is what we spend time on that we really value. I have a big clock at the front of my room. It has a red pointer that sweeps around to show the seconds. I purchased it at a local store for about $15. When it is one minute before class starts, I make a big show of looking at the clock and saying, “Class begins in one minute.” I have explained during the first day how this class-start count-down is a service to students so they know they have one minute to finish their conversation and be ready to begin a lesson. I want to respect their conversation, so I want them to know exactly when class starts. At 30 seconds, I announce, “Class begins in 30 seconds.” I make the same type of announcement at 20, 10, 5 seconds. At 10 seconds, I turn off the radio, to provide an auditory clue. When the second hand reaches 12, I announce “class is starting.” Then, the overhead is switched on. On the overhead is a piece of plastic showing the date, an early work question and the schedule for the day. These auditory and visual clues help all students know when class has started - it keeps me focused too! Soon, all students know, if they walk in my class, and the radio is off with the overhead on -they are tardy. This eliminates the loud, “Am I tardy?” question that can interrupt a class.

Fourth hint: Help, but do not enable. I want you to consider responsibility-moving-overmanship. Engineer the classroom to help the student to be responsible. For example, a student comes to class without a pencil. The first person turned to is the teacher. If we are not careful, we give the student a pencil, then forget to get it back, the next class or two later - guess what - the same student comes to class without a pencil. Responsibility-moving-over-manship involves helping the student get a pencil, but not from you. Tell the student you do not loan pencils, but you will facilitate getting a pencil. I explain to my students that if one were working as a mechanic and forgot to bring the tools to work, the LAST person the mechanic would ask for tools is the manager. At work, one asks their peers to help out. After all, it is never to one’s advantage to let the manager know they came to work unprepared. Then I ask the class if anyone can loan a pencil. Believe me, the same student who has no problem asking you for a pencil several times a semester, really does not like asking fellow classmates. We want to help students become independent, we do not want to enable their dependence on us. The way to tell if we are helping or enabling is to ask our selves, are my actions helping the student become more independent in the long run or simply continuing their dependency on me?

Fifth hint: Here’s another responsibility-moving-over-manship idea. Go to the thrift store and buy a small, brightly-colored plastic bowl. Put the bowl at the front of the room. When students have an admit slip, or any other paper that needs your signature, they put the paper in the bowl at the start of class. After you sign the slip, put it back in the bowl. That way, you are not searching for that admit slip, buried under other papers - and the student also knows where to look after the class ends. Remember, if you take the paper, who’s responsible? If the bowl takes the paper, first, it does not disappear on your desk, and second, if the student forgets to get their slip, you do not have to stop the next class lesson to search on your desk for the paper. The student quietly comes in, gets what they need from the bowl and leaves. Part of reducing our stress is engineering our classrooms so students are more responsible, and that frees up more time for us to do the teacher business at school and not take it home!

Sixth hint: Buy a Rubbermaid wash tub. They come in many colors, and the bottom measures about 9x12 (just the right size for papers to fit). Place the tub near the front of the room and make it the turn-in box. All papers go in the turn-in box. Responsibility-moving-over-manship, if you collect the papers and a paper is not picked up, who’s responsible? If the papers are to be turned into a box, and it is not turned in, who’s responsible? Keep the box in the same place all year long. Remember, the students have several other teachers, each with their own method of collecting papers. A consistent turn-in spot will eliminate the requirement of always having to instruct students where or how to turn in papers. One more thing, I put a teddy bear next to the turn in box. Yup, a teddy bear. It seems that students sometimes do not hear, “Put your papers in the green tub” but they always hear “Put your papers in the green tub by the teddy bear” I don’t know exactly why but it works!

Seventh hint: Share the daily schedule with students. It is amazing how many students think we just wing it each day. They think we can walk into a classroom and go “Oh, Today I think I’ll doooo….” If we share with students what the expectations are for the day, they know we have a certain number of activities to do during that class period. Of course, I always schedule a little more than I suspect we can cover. That way we never have too much time, and I get a jump start on the next day’s lesson! During staff meetings, isn’t it nice to see an agenda? It is the same for our students. It lets them know there is a plan and purpose for our classroom meeting. If you are not already doing this, I HIGHLY recommend the daily schedule!

We are coming to the end of our time together. My book, “Teaching Smarter,” is written in two parts. In part one I share 28 ideas similar to the suggestions I’ve just shared with you. Part one of the book begins with this statement, “Before we can expect teachers to embrace systemic change, we need to offer specific techniques to help reduce their stress and fatigue. Part two of “Teaching Smarter” offers 26 specific techniques for involving students in meaningful decision-making and creating activities for encouraging higher level thinking skills - with less paper work for teachers. By using “Teaching Smarter” techniques, teachers have reported to me that:

* Students understand the structure of the class
* very little time is wasted,
* class begins on time,
* students are actively and cooperatively involved in a learning task within one minute of the start time,
* class is dismissed by the teacher on time
* the room is left at least as neat as when class started
* because the class and teacher are working cooperatively and governed by a student-generated behavior contract, there are very few behavior problems.

I would like to leave you with a statement that helped change the way I think about teaching. “The student is not the product. The learning is the product, and the teacher and the students should work together to produce the best quality product they can.” This quote changes the focus away from improving the student, to working together to improve the learning. Let’s face it NOBODY like to be worked on, but everyone likes to be worked with, respected for their input and valued for what they can contribute.


Sandy LaBelle lives in a suburb of Seattle, Washington. She has been teaching workshops and seminars for the last several years. Recently, she was a presenter at the ACTE national convention in Orlando, and the National Principals’ convention in San Antonio. Both presentations were made to rooms packed to capacity - and more! Sandy published a book, “Teaching Smarter” in December of 1999. Sandy can be reached by calling 253-630-2907, by e-mail at sandra_labelle@hotmail.com or at her web site teachingsmarter.net. Sandy is available as a presenter at school and district inservices, or as a keynote speaker at conventions.