Thursday, April 22, 2010

Personal Best

Recently someone asked me a question about the quality of student work. "How can I get students to take their time and not just slap something down when I have them do creative activities?" My thoughts jumped immediately to the life-skill of doing your personal best. This is one of those skills I feel has been neglected in our rush to get through the curriculum. We have so much to teach and so many concepts that must be covered before the end of the school year that we end up rushing our students through their work. We tell them to do a good job and then we say, "Hurry up. Don't lag behind." There is a very fine line to be balanced between allowing students enough time to do a good job on their work and giving too much time that ends up wasted by students through dawdling and procrastination.

One way we can walk this fine line is by teaching, training, and expecting personal best from students. For many of them this is a life-skill that is not emphasized enough both at home and in the classroom. We tell students that we expect them to do a good job, but what does that mean? Also, is doing a good job the same for every student? It shouldn't be. Every student has differing ability levels, creativity, and ideas which mean that you will get a different level of work out of each. This is why I like to focus on the concept of personal best.

At the beginning of each year I go through a little spiel about my expectations and what I want to see from my students. I always take some time to talk about the life-skill of personal best. I read one of my favorite poems by Charles Osgood entitled "Pretty Good." If you are interested you can view the poem at The gist of the poem is that there was a pretty good student in a pretty good school that doesn't make him work too hard. They'll take work that is pretty good. After a while everyone finds out that pretty good is really pretty bad. I use this poem to emphasize how important it is that we each do our personal best. I have to do my personal best as the teacher and I expect my students to do their personal best in all that they do.

What exactly is personal best? Well, it is going to be different for each student. If I feel that a student has given me a product that is not their personal best, I will ask him or her, "Do you believe this is your personal best?" Most of the time the student knows the truth of it and will either nod a yes or shake his or her head no. At that point I return the work to them and expect it to be done again. If it is a creative assignment, I will require students show me their product before turning it in. We talk about whether the final product represents the student's personal best. I'll probe and ask students what they think their personal best product should look like. This helps the student to see where he or she needs to improve the project or work completed. At first students are irritated with me and simply want to turn it in and get it over with. However, I stand my ground and continue the conversation and probing questions. After doing this process several times, I will start getting products that reflect each student's personal best from the start.

This same standard goes for me. If I don't do my own personal best in my teaching, how can I expect my students to put their personal best into their work? A large part of teaching is modeling. If we expect a behavior or attitude from our students, we need to consistently exhibit that same behavior and attitude ourselves. Our students know when we don't follow our own admonitions and expectations. I've even had students come up to me after a day where I "winged it" and say, "Mrs., that wasn't really your personal best today, was it?" Boy, that really gets to me. I'm rebuked and know that my students can tell when I haven't done my personal best in teaching. I feel honor bound to put my very best into the lessons and activities I plan so that students can see what personal best truly means.

If you feel you are getting substandard work from your students, take some time to talk to them about personal best. Get them to discuss what personal best looks like and feels like. Show your students some examples of work you've gotten in the past that showed personal best. Explain to them how you put your personal best into lessons and activities. Let them know that from now on you will not accept work that does not represent a student's personal best effort. They will have to work on it over and over until it is truly their personal best. At the same time, be sure you communicate the fact that each person has a different personal best. You are not looking for every project to be exactly the same. What you are looking for are students who strive to do their best, at whatever level that may be. Show consistency in expecting personal best from students and in doing your own personal best. Before long your students will catch on that it is better for them to take their time and do their best the first time around than to redo an assignment over and over. In thinking about our own classrooms, schools, and communities, we really don't want to be like the people in Charles Osgood's poem. Instead, let's strive for personal best rather than pretty good.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Become a Task Master


Time. It's something we have in limited supply. There are only 24 hours in a day, eight of which should be spent in sleep. The remaining hours must then be divided into work, personal time, and recreation/relaxation time. As a new teacher you'll find yourself overwhelmed with the number of activities and tasks that will fill your time. There are lessons to plan, papers to be graded, classes to teach, paperwork to fill out, meetings to attend, parents to call, colleagues to conference with, students to redirect, and more. At times it may even feel as though you are drowning. Then when you get home, for many of you, there will be laundry to do, meals to fix, shopping & cleaning to do, and families to care for. How can you manage all of these aspects of your life? That's where time management comes in. It is all too easy to let your tasks control you and your time. Instead, strive to be the master of your own time. Below are a few ideas to help you be a "Task Master":

Know your tasks. Our "To Do" list takes up much of our time and so often things get added to this list at odd moments. You may be walking down the hallway when the special education teacher stops you and says, "Oh, good, I caught you. Can you please fill out this referral packet on _____? I need it tomorrow morning." A little later you may realize, "We need more toilet paper at home." Then you walk into your classroom and get ready to teach the next lesson. It's no wonder that our "To Do" list can pile up on us with many items forgotten and left undone.

One way to keep track of all these items is to keep a small journal or a legal sized pad with you at all times. This is something I find helps keep me on top of all the different tasks I face – both personal and professional. Make two, three, or four columns on the page (depending on how many parts of your life require specific tasks). My list is divided into three columns of Work, House, and Family. In each column I then list the tasks I need to complete. If you keep this pad with you at all times, it is easy to jot down an unexpected task that comes your way. Put a star next to it to show higher priority, and a deadline date if one is given. I also mark down a day & time for specific items on my list. For example: Parent Meeting – Tues @ 3pm (office). That way if I don't have my calendar with me, I know what appointments are coming up. Keep the list for a week at a time. At the end of the week transfer any items not completed to the next sheet of paper on the pad.

Keep a calendar. This tool will be a lifeline when you begin ARD meetings, parent conferences, staff development meetings and all of the other appointments that will fill your time besides teaching. Outlook has a great calendar tool that will notify participants via email of appointments and changes to those appointments. You can even print out your calendar a week at a time and keep your "To Do" list as part of your calendar. Outlook also has a "Task Panel" where you can list all of your tasks to complete that week. As soon as you set up a parent conference/phone call, staff meeting, field trip, etc., mark it on your calendar. When you get memos from your administrator noting due dates, meetings, etc., mark it on your calendar. When another staff member requests your attendance at a meeting, mark it on your calendar. Then keep your calendar handy. Do not commit to any meetings until you have checked your calendar.

Allot specific amounts of time for tasks. If you get into the habit of using a calendar, you can then set appointments to complete certain daily tasks. For example, you might set an appointment each Wednesday afternoon to plan lessons for the following week. Go ahead and mark these on your calendar before school starts (don't forget to take into account weekly faculty meetings). Now when making appointments you won't accidentally over-plan your time and not have enough to grade papers and plan lessons. Also be sure to put in personal appointments on the same calendar. Keeping two calendars is simply too confusing with all of the tasks and appointments you'll have throughout the year.

Don't forget to allot time for those tasks that are important for your health and well-being. This includes time for exercise, personal reflection, and relaxation. Believe me, you'll find yourself so overwhelmed by work that these important activities will be left by the wayside. You need to take time for yourself each day and each week so that you don't burn out, which can happen easily in this profession.

Managing your time is all about allotting segments to accomplish the various tasks and appointments required by your job and personal life. Using a "To Do" list and a calendar are two ways you can keep track of all that is going on without getting overwhelmed. Don't forget to reward yourself when you've accomplished your major tasks and goals. Stop and eat a piece of chocolate or go out and watch that new movie. You see, when you are in control of your tasks, you can do these little things for yourself that make life more enjoyable. In essence, you become a "Task Master."


Column by Emma McDonald reprinted with permission from The New Teacher Advisor column on Education World found at