From Scattered Unreadiness to Winning Teamwork

For Middle Level

I have taught eighth grade science for seven years. As rewarding as this profession is, certain things got under my skin. For example, it frustrated me how many students didn't come prepared with basic materials. I assumed that eighth graders would have developed enough skills to remember to do this on a daily basis, yet typically there were several students in each class who forgot one or more items, causing delays and lost instruction time.

This year, I set a new goal: All students will be prepared for class. I planned a course of action before the year started, determined to make this goal a reality.

Clear expectations
I knew it was important for me to remember, "Assume nothing, model everything." I carved out time for modeling how to enter the classroom on days one and two. I was careful to demonstrate for students how to keep quiet and safe, and made a point of showing them that I was carrying everything required: agenda, black- or blue-ink pen, pencil, textbook, science journal. After modeling, I informed students that prior to each lesson we would do a quick "materials survey." All would be expected to display each item on their desktops, and I would keep track of how we did each day.

Accentuate the positive
It was up to me to follow through with this plan. At first, I kept a running record on the board of the percentage of students who had failed to come to class prepared. I soon realized that this was the wrong way to go about it; I was focusing on mistakes. The percentage of failure varied from 5% to 30% each day, and after a few days the routine took on a negative connotation. So I began instead to record the percentage of students who were prepared. This made a big difference in the students' attitude toward our goal. To them, talking about and celebrating a 94% success rate was much more fun than celebrating(?) a 6% failure rate!

Improvements began almost immediately after the switch. Spontaneously, we started cheering and congratulating each other! Many classes soon hit 100%, and we now hit perfection on a regular basis in all classes. Positive peer pressure took on a life of its own. If a student had to leave to retrieve a forgotten item, his peers were respectful, but there was a slight sense of disappointment in the air. It really felt like the group cared, really wanted to be 100%. I soon noticed that if someone forgot something on Monday, she rarely forgot again that week!

Teamwork
Here was the clincher: When I introduced the materials survey idea, I told the students that as a teacher I had to continue to learn about teaching, and I asked for their help with my "homework." The daily materials survey was, I explained, part of a project I had developed during the summer, and by participating and doing their best, they were helping me learn as much as I try to help them learn. I also asked them to remind me if I forgot to start class with the survey. We became a team.

It seemed that framing the initiative as collaborative helped them become more invested. They clearly saw how it benefitted them, and they also wanted me to be successful with the project! Other methods I'd tried in earlier years were completely missing this teamwork-based approach, and those methods turned out to be far less successful and more stressful.

Invite broader participation
Next year, I plan to ask other eighth grade teachers to join this effort, both by reminding their advisory groups each day to bring materials to class and by conducting a daily materials survey in their classes. This should reinforce the importance of bringing necessary materials to all classes and also have the side benefit of making trips to lockers during passing period more businesslike. Sometimes fixing the little things—like bringing materials to classmakes the big things seem a little more doable.

I will also talk to teachers in the younger grades and see if we can have them do something similar. Eventually this rigor around responsibility for materials could become a school-wide initiative, giving younger students a leg up. Our students would carry these new habits (and supplies!) with them for the rest of their lives!

Terence WIlson teaches 8th graders at Wilbraham Middle School in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.