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A "Nuts and Bolts" Approach To Classroom Successes


A former teacher, Dr. Jane Bluestein turned her pages of tips for teachers about classroom management and organization into a book and then a business. She works with educators seeking new ways to improve their teaching and interactions. Included: Tips for improving student behavior and school climate.

Dr. Jane Bluestein works with teachers and administrators on a host of topics, including staff and program development issues, student-teacher relationships, and classroom management. Bluestein is the president of Instructional Support Services (I.S.S.) and I.S.S. publications, and offers educators consultation and speaker services, publications and resources, and online information, including articles, book excerpts, and handouts from her training sessions. She is a former classroom teacher.

Dr. Jane Bluestein

Bluestein spoke with Education World about her vision for education and what she hears from today's educators about their needs and struggles.

Education World: What prompted you to start Instructional Support Services (I.S.S.)?

Dr. Jane Bluestein: There seems to be an enormous need for support, encouragement, and understanding in the teaching profession, including a real practical, effective, nuts-and-bolts approach to classroom successes (much of which are not measurable on current achievement tests, by the way) and problem prevention.

The company actually started with a book. I was working as the coordinator of a graduate teacher-training program for first-year teacher interns. I started creating handouts with tips for a number of topics, things like managing routines and homework, finding out about your students, teaching large and small groups, setting up individualized prescriptive instruction, learning about the school community, even preparing for guest speakers and field trips.

These materials eventually became chapters in a 400-plus-page self-published workbook entitled The Beginning Teacher's Resource Handbook. I started getting orders for copies of the book from other educators throughout the district and eventually from around the state.

The business grew as I continued to write, and as I began to be invited to different schools around New Mexico to speak on a variety of topics.

EW: About which issues do teachers and administrators most often seek your help?

Bluestein: Wow. Where to start? Well, certainly discipline always has been a number-one priority. Anything that has to do with motivating and engaging kids, minimizing or getting past a myriad of defensive, aggressive or oppositional behaviors, overcoming things like passive learning, learned helplessness, perfectionism or non-constructive attitudes.

Building relationships with parents is another issue, as well as dealing with those parents who are either over-involved or under-involved, or who don't really know how to best support their kids' learning and behavior.

Social and emotional issues also are high on the list, from bullying and teasing to dealing with tattling or weaknesses in emotional intelligence, problem solving, friendship skills, or self-management and self-control.

Oh, and let's not forget the ubiquitous frustration and anger I keep running into regarding things like professional discretion, high-stakes testing, and an often enormous gap between curricular mandates and students' ability levels.

EW: How do your approaches to classroom management and teacher-student relationships differ from others' approaches?

Bluestein: I tend to focus more on preventing disruptions and misbehavior (or other problems like failure, passive learning and indifference) than on reacting to those issues.

I emphasize such approaches as using boundaries with positive consequences, and good and immediate follow-through. Additionally, I look for ways to increase success to minimize the kinds of behavior problems we see when kids figure they're going to fail anyhow, and for ways to accommodate kids' needs for some control and autonomy within limits.

Even a simple switch from "If you don't return your library book, you can't take out another one," to something along the lines of "Of course you can take another book out, as soon as you return the ones you have at home!" can have a profound effect on the emotional climate of the classroom (or home environment) and the quality of the interactions between adults and kids.

The most frequent questions I get seem to begin with "What do I do when?" I also am encountering large numbers of people who are frustrated that no amount of detentions, punishments, names on the board, or "red lights" seem to be changing behavior. They always seem to be dealing with the same behaviors from the same kids, possibly because those reactions only tend to reinforce the very behaviors they are supposed to extinguish.

I see that as a signal that something isn't working. I keep urging teachers (and parents, too) to come in through a different doorway. Rather than looking for a more effective negative consequence (punishment), I recommend that they focus on more positive consequences. In other words, rather than emphasizing what they don't get if they don't do what you're asking, switch to a focus on what they do get if they cooperate or follow through on their end.

" I think we'd all be a lot happier if we didn't have to put so much energy into looking good, or achieving someone else's notion of where all kids should be."

EW: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to quality learning in schools today?

Bluestein: Possibly the biggest obstacles are human-nature kinds of things, like our desire for a quick fix -- much easier than the kinds of long-term processes involved in restructuring power dynamics, for example, or changing the culture of a classroom or school. I also hear teachers say "that won't work" before even trying a sound, research-based strategy with their kids. Or they complain that their department chairperson, administration, or colleagues will give them a hard time if they do anything that doesn't look like a fairly rigid, traditional approach to teaching.

Other obstacles include black and white thinking (especially when it comes to establishing win-win authority relationships), reactivity (like panicking at a slight dip in test scores and responding with such district-wide policies as doubling up the amount of homework kids are assigned), scarcity thinking (which we see in competitive grading, for example) and a generally punitive or penalty-based response to anything problematic (such as suspending kids rather than teaching and obligating them to make more constructive choices). We sabotage our authority by giving warnings, asking for excuses or refusing to follow-through when our policies are not respected. We take ten points off an assignment because a child didn't understand something rather than teaching or sending him or her back to the library to fill in the gaps in understanding.

Trying to push kids through a cookie-cutter curriculum also creates problems for both teachers and students. Another big complaint is the pressure to get test scores up. Teachers who seem to have the greatest successes are those who see -- and present -- the tests as simply something we have to do, kind of like flossing, and then get down to the business of teaching.

EW: What kind of support do today's teachers and administrators need to be effective?

Bluestein: I suspect that there would be many teachers who would like more support for punishing kids or getting rid of kids who aren't cooperating or keeping up. Perhaps if there were more support for doing the kinds of things that would minimize those behaviors or failures in the first place, we could start shifting our thinking and teaching behaviors.

I think people would love to be able to teach kids rather than subjects, and be encouraged to try different things with different kids. I think we'd all be a lot happier if we didn't have to put so much energy into looking good, or achieving someone else's notion of where all kids should be. I'm hearing a cry for more space, more discretion, and more professional autonomy. I remember a history teacher in New York who, a week after the September 11, 2001 attacks, responded to my comment about how incredible it must be to be a history teacher with so much history going on, with, "You're kidding, right? I have to get through a chapter on ancient Egypt this week."

For Pete's sake, let's back off on the pressure to "get through" the curriculum and get kids to perform on a very limited measurement of success. We call it accountability, but it's kind of a fake accountability for a very small slice of what learning and achievement actually involves. The best of what happens in a classroom is pretty hard to measure and may take some time to develop. (I also hear from many teachers who manage to elicit enormous gains for which they don't get any credit because the kids are still behind some standards or pacing guides.) It's terribly frustrating.

EW: What do you think are some of the components of an ideal school?

Bluestein: First of all, a widespread commitment to creating an emotionally safe school environment is pretty important. That allows people to begin working on various components, which, on their own, can help, but without that context, often don't achieve the goals they hope to achieve. (For example, working to stop bullying and build social skills among kids is much more likely to happen in an environment in which teachers model those behaviors in their interactions with kids and with one another.)

I think we need to look at this school culture from a number of different perspectives: behavioral, academic, social, emotional, physical (physiological, neurological) and also at differences in how kids learn. Attention to the needs of the body is critical. (Kids sit way too much.) They need more opportunities to interact and create, different ways to demonstrate mastery.

It helps when teachers like kids and like teaching -- I know that sounds obvious but demoralized, angry, and frustrated teachers bring a different kind of energy to the job than do those who look forward to their work. A sense of community in which differences -- not standards or similarities -- are respected and nurtured would be lovely.

Parent involvement and support are other big plusses, and that is more likely to happen when we offer regular positive contact, feedback about progress and effort and things their kids are doing well, and support for policies we plan to implement.

This e-interview with Dr. Jane Bluestein is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Originally published 04/22/2004; updated 12/05/2005