New Teachers: Listen to the Goddess of Good Advice

 I’ve known Cossondra George since the early days of MiddleWeb’s online community, where she was a regular and wise voice. For several years in the 2000s I was privileged to be her editor on a series of articles she wrote for Ed Week Teacher.

Cossondra has a knack for giving good teaching advice, as you can easily learn by googling her name. (The unusual spelling is a web-searcher’s delight.) And unlike the mythological Cassandra, her accurate predictions of things to come (in the new teacher’s classroom) have been embraced by many. 

Cossondra’s insights can be found in high-readership articles at Education Week, including: Taming the Dragon of Classroom Chaos, After the Honeymoon, Teaching Students How to Learn, and most recently Ending the Year on a High Note. Her teaching blog, Middle School Day by Day, from a Teacher’s Point of View was recognized with a 2011 Fascination Award.

Cossondra has spent her 18-year teaching career in the small town of Newberry, Michigan, where — as she tells us in this recent interview — she’s worn quite a few hats, from middle & high school special educator to content specialist, teaching her favorite subject — mathematics.

1. You’ve written several popular articles about classroom organization, behavior management strategies and your techniques for establishing student routines. Novice teachers are eager to read them, we know. We’d like to focus some questions around your advice. But first, tell us about your teaching career.

I currently teach middle and high school special ed. When I finished my bachelor’s degree in elementary education, with emphasis in math and social studies, I wanted to get my endorsement in learning disabilities. So rather than seek a full-time teaching position, I continued to work towards my masters in special education while I subbed.

Once I received my masters degree, I took a position as a middle school special ed teacher at Newberry Middle School in Newberry, Michigan. After several years as an inclusion special ed teacher, I was asked to teach 8th grade history. While I was teaching history, I searched online for resources to help me engage students. I discovered MiddleWeb. (This was more than a decade ago!) After my one year of 8th grade history, I was moved to 7th grade where I mostly taught math, but some years I also taught social studies and technology classes.

Two years ago, another special ed position opened up and I took it. Now, some of my day is spent in inclusion classes (in both the middle and high school) and some in my own MS resource classroom.

As you can see, after nearly 20 years in public education, I’ve had lots of experience in the upper middle grades, in a variety of teaching roles.

2. In general, what would you say is your philosophy of teaching and learning? Talk about the fundamentals. What understandings about young people and adult-student relationships have shaped your teaching practice?

The most important thing I’ve learned about teaching is this: Building relationships with your students is the key to engaging them in the content. Until you can connect with them on some personal level, whether it is talking about football, hunting, pets, or some television show, students rarely will engage with you meaningfully about content. Once they feel a connection with you, that’s when learning starts. They trust you, they want to please you, are willing to struggle along on the journey beside you.

Teaching kids that learning goes hand in hand with struggling and failing can lead to a wonderful experience for both your students and yourself. Being honest about your own shortcomings, allowing students to see you learn and grow — learning to laugh with them at your own mistakes — will go a long way towards building trust.

3. Thinking about the first 4-6 weeks of school, what key steps do you take to establish a positive learning environment where students are respectful and eager to learn? What are the elements that must be in place, in and out of the classroom, for this to work for all students?

I’m not big on classroom rules. I think middle grades students know what is expected RULE-wise, and I enforce the basics: self-respect, respect for others and for property. Where I am really “strict” is on procedures – how we do things, when we do things, and where things belong. As our classroom procedures begin to become second nature to my students, the positive learning environment emerges.

Cossondra’s students – 2005 service-learning project

I build a structured routine of how I envision our classroom looking and functioning, and I model that over and over, helping students create their own method for fitting into the picture. I explain to them why I want things the way I want them and help them see how working together can create a more comfortable place for all of us to be.

One of the most important things a teacher can do is to meet and greet students at the door every day, every hour, by name. Smile, say “hello,” “good morning,” “Hey, I like your shoes (haircut, t-shirt),” “Don’t forget your book and a pencil…”. Anything to happily greet them as they walk in the door. I even post pictures of students from the local newspaper, along with comics, sports news, and other interesting information on the door so they want to stop, look, read and chat about what’s new.

Relationships, relationships, relationships. It really is all about relationships.

4. One of your most popular online articles is one for Education Week titled Taming the Dragon of Classroom Chaos. You admit in that article that you’re not naturally “neat.” Give us the essential strategies you use to create an “organized” classroom.

A place for everything – a place to turn in work, a place for supplies, a teacher-only space, a place for today’s handouts, a place for attendance, a place for EVERYTHING. Otherwise, I would never ever know where anything is. Learn what your weakness is, and create a location to solve that problem. Create a routine for you and your students that leads to learning.

My best organizer is the bell-ringer assignment students find on the board when they walk in. It gets the kids engaged right away, and gives me three precious minutes to take attendance and deal with all the little nit-picky stuff that has to be taken care of some days. It takes time to create meaningful math starters or social studies questions that tie yesterday’s lesson to what we’ll do today, but the bell-ringer can provide valuable instruction as well as organizational support.

I’ve also learned to let go of things that don’t matter in favor of things that matter more. At one time, I took over writing the quote of the day on this blackboard in the hallway. It was fun but took time I discovered I needed for other things. Now I write on it once a week or whenever I get around to it. No one seems to care that there is not a fresh quote every day. Let go of things that don’t matter so much in favor of things that do.

As far as classroom organization, that will look different for everyone depending on your room, what you teach, and your style of teaching. But the basics include things like supply locations, where it is easy for students to grab their own notebook, paper, markers, etc. Organize so that it is easy for you to scan at the end of the hour to make sure things are taken care of. That kind of organizing keep me sane!

It can be little things like turning our supply cubbies on tables away from students so they don’t get filled with trash. Big things like investing in different colored Expo markers for different classes or topics so my boards are not just a huge conglomeration of stuff with no rhyme or reason. Passes hanging by the door for bathroom or hall travel so I don’t have to write on one every time a student leaves the room. Seating charts – made by me or by students, but a place for every student and that student in their place – takes care of attendance quickly, lets subs know who, what, when and where, and also helps solve the mystery of whose book, or hat or sweater has been left behind.

At the end of the Dragon article you mentioned, I wrote:

Amid the chaos that is my classroom, a sharp observer will see these little islands of organization, floating in the clutter and disarray. My students and I spend our time together engaged in learning, and for the most part, things run smoothly.

Most of the ideas in that article aren’t original with me. But I’ve certainly put them to the test! As I said there, anyone who suffers like I do from chronic disorganization can make good use of them.

5. Finally, how is teaching different today than when your began your career? And how does that change the teaching job — or does it? When you began, you no doubt weighed the positives and negatives of a teaching career and the positives won out. Do you think that would be true if you were starting out today? If not, what needs to change?

Much has changed since I began teaching. Technology has taken over every aspect of our lives, and school is no exception. Some of those changes are welcome. We have the ability to access unlimited information quickly. We have the ability to communicate with people around the globe in real time. Those new capacities make learning exciting and meaningful in ways never before possible.

On the other hand, technology often becomes a distraction for students who are not mature enough to filter out the digital buzz and focus on their learning. They think they can multi-task, texting and chatting, and still learn. For some students, this is true. Unfortunately, it’s not true for all. Many students become so bogged down in the social aspects of technology, education suddenly takes a back seat.

Teachers are being held more and more accountable for student learning and achievement. In theory, this is a great idea. I think all teachers should be held to high expectations and kept on track, and should assume responsibility for the success of students in their classrooms. But students are not widgets, and many outside factors influence learning.

We are not all-powerful, able to transmit knowledge and understanding into the brains of our students by touching a button or uttering a magic word. When students are disengaged, we can try all the tools at our disposal, spend sleepless nights coming up with new strategies and ideas, try everything and then some, and still be unsuccessful.

All students are not created equal and to expect them to all arrive at the same destination on the same time schedule is unreasonable. To hold teachers solely accountable for the outcome of that journey is also unreasonable. There has to be a middle ground of spreading the accountability to include other people who make decisions that affect learning — from students themselves, to parents, to school leaders and board members, to politicians, and to the larger community.

Teaching is a wonderful, challenging and sometimes frustrating profession. We need good teachers who will stand up for kids. If that’s you, then chances are the positives will outweigh the negatives.

Would I become a teacher again, given the circumstances in public schools today? Probably. I love my job most of the time. The kids are great. I love the light bulbs that come on in their heads, the positive bubblings they emit, and the feeling that sometimes, I actually do make a difference in their lives.

On the other hand, I would strongly caution anyone considering teaching as a career choice to make sure you are up for the long haul. The pay is marginal. The perks that attracted career teachers in the past — good health insurance, retirement benefits and job security — are no longer guaranteed. If you truly aren’t willing to work 60 hours a week, if you aren’t willing to fight with parents, administrators and politicians for what you believe is right for your students, then consider a different career option.

Teaching is a wonderful, challenging and sometimes frustrating profession. We need good teachers who will stand up for kids. If that’s you, then chances are the positives will outweigh the negatives.

Thanks so much, Cossondra. We’ll watch for future advice and good luck in your next decade of teaching!

John Norton

John Croft Norton is an education writer and editor. He's the founder and co-editor of MiddleWeb. John also co-founded the national Teacher Leaders Network and enjoys developing and supporting virtual communities of educators and promoting teacher voices. He lives in Little Switzerland NC, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, and once lived in Atlanta, where he was vice president for information at the Southern Regional Education Board.

2 Responses

  1. 06/20/2012

    […] A MiddleWeb Interview I’ve known Cossondra George since the early days of MiddleWeb’s online community, where she was a regular and wise voice. For…  […]

  2. 10/13/2012

    […] • In his Classroom Tips column at Ed Week Teacher, Coach G (David Ginsburg) urges novice teachers to focus on procedures, not rules, to assure good behavior and a well-managed classroom. There’s a demo video. Teacher Cossondra George makes similar points in this MiddleWeb interview. […]

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