by Harry & Rosemary Wong
Special to the Gazette
November 1, 2009
Success in a State Controlled School
Perceptions of a State Controlled School
In 1988 New Jersey became the first state to enact legislation to take over schools that were underperforming or fiscally mismanaged. Through the years, other states have passed similar laws to gain control of school systems that fail to meet state standards.
Griselda Almonte teaches in the Paterson, New Jersey, school system. Paterson has the distinction of being the second school system to be seized by the state, and is still under state control.
From a thriving industrial city that was once a leisure and shopping destination, Paterson is now an urban area of high unemployment with small family-owned businesses making up the bulk of the economy.
• Paterson Public Schools is one of the poorest school districts in New Jersey.
• There are no resources for teachers to use in their classrooms.
• While always considered a melting pot of ethnicity, more than 50% of the
is Hispanic, 32% is African-American, with a remainder of Syrians,
Lebanese, Chechen, Arabs, Turks, Native Americans, and others.
• Griselda has to lock her classroom door at lunch.
Setting the Record Straight
We said Griselda has to lock her classroom door at lunchtime. And you can only guess why, right? Wrong! Griselda has built such an excellent rapport with her students they want to sneak out of the lunchroom and come to her classroom to sit and talk with her.
Griselda teaches three double periods in a row before taking her first break at lunch. This human dynamo works relentlessly, convincing her students that high expectations and goals are completely within reach.
So to take a breather at lunch to refresh, recharge, and take care of personal needs is completely understandable. “Don’t get me wrong,” says Griselda. “I love talking with my students and getting to know them. But, after my busy morning, I do welcome a quiet lunch!”
In 2008, Griselda opted to move from teaching in a select charter school to teaching at School Number 15 in Paterson, New Jersey. She has had to adapt to working with no resources and handling up to nine special needs students in one class.
Yet, Griselda believes, “I am confident that with everything I’ve learned, and everything I’m still learning, that I can be successful in ANY teaching environment.”
Demographics Is Not an Excuse
Wang, Haertel, and Walberg reviewed 11,000 pieces of research spanning 50 years. They determined that there are 28 factors that influence student learning, and ranked them in order of impact:
The #1 factor governing student learning is classroom management.
The least important factor is the demographics of the student body.
It’s true. The student’s neighborhood, as well as the financial status, race, gender, national and religious background of the family are the least important factors in determining student achievement. (See The First Days of School, page 80.)
Instead, it is the teacher—what the teacher knows and does—that makes the difference in the achievement levels of the students in the classroom.
Jumpstarting the First Day of School
Griselda started teaching at School Number 15 in May 2008. The previous teacher left in January due to a serious illness. As expected, the teacher left behind no lesson plans for the next teacher. A near-daily rotation of substitute teachers followed until Griselda was hired in May. Months passed with no lesson continuity, no classroom structure, or procedures and routines for the students to follow. There was no consistency.
Griselda’s biggest concern was the lack of structure and consistency in the classroom. Her solution to that was to start her first class with a PowerPoint presentation.
The “May” First Day of School Plan
Griselda began by assuring her studentsthat she was here to stay. She was not going to leave them after a few days. She was invested in them, and she would teach them to the best of her abilities.
Griselda shared that she had been a pharmaceutical chemist before becoming a teacher and spent her days working with chemicals. But, she soon realized she would rather work with young people because she loves children, and she loves teaching!
Griselda told her students, “I think people sometimes get stressed out because they don’t know what to do. So, in our class, I have a system so that everyone always knows what to do. This means nobody gets stressed out. This stress-free system is made up of classroom rules, procedures, and routines.”
She discussed with her students the difference between rules, procedures, and routines. (To review the differences please read The First Days of School, Chapter 18 about rules and Chapters 19 and 20 about procedures.)
Griselda told her students each one was capable of succeeding in her class and the rules ensured a safe and effective learning environment for everyone.
There are four simple rules in Griselda’s class:
1. Ask before getting out of your seat.
2. Be quiet when others speak.
3. Keep your hands and items to yourself.
4. No profanity.
Griselda explains that rules have consequences, penalties, and rewards. She uses her PowerPoint presentation (available later in this article) to make this clear to her students.
Students Want and Appreciate Procedures
Griselda’s goal is to turn all classroom procedures into automatic routines for her students. “A procedure,” Griselda shares with her students, “tells you how to do something, step-by-step, until it becomes a habit or a routine. You will know that a procedure has become a routine when you find yourself doing something every day, on your own, without me prompting you.”
She uses examples of familiar, real-life, procedures that are routines in people’s lives. She asks her students:
What do drivers do when they turn a corner?
What do drivers do when they change lanes?
How do you call a friend of your phone?
How do you turn off a computer?
She then comes to the most important part of her PowerPoint presentation—the part where she convinces her students classroom procedures are not for the teacher’s benefit. Instead, classroom procedures benefit everyone—and someday they will thank her for introducing procedures into their lives!
Griselda shares the value of procedures with her students.
Everyone will know exactly what to do. This makes school and work less stressful and confusing. It also makes it a lot easier for everyone to succeed in class!
The class has more learning time. The teacher does not have to bore students by repeating the same instructions over and over again.
There is no chaos in class. Class is organized, structured, and predictable. There are no unpleasant surprises.
The students past few months of getting a new substitute teacher almost daily, a lack of structure in class, minimal learning, and constant chaos had convinced them that structure was not a bad word. Griselda found that her students were not only receptive to the idea of procedures—they were hungry to learn the procedures!
Consistent Classroom Procedures
Structure and consistency were missing from her students’ lives—in and out of the classroom. With just a few weeks left in the school year, Griselda’s was committed to making each moment count. She inherited lots of baggage with her classes. She knew the only way to let her students know she cared for their success was to organize the classroom with procedures so everyone knew the expectation and everyone would be treated fairly. These are some of the classroom procedures she taught her students in May:
How to enter the classroom
What to do as soon as you enter class
What to do if you have an excused late
What to do if you have an unexcused late
What to do if you finish work early
What to do during class discussions
How to exchange your used pencil for a fresh one
What to do during classroom interruptions
What to do at the end of class
What to do if you are absent
To encourage students to convey their needs with minimal disruption to the lesson and their classmates, Griselda devised a system of hand signals for her students to use.
Create your own set of hand signals to communicate with your students. Noise levels will decrease and on task time will increase. Think about the requests, questions, or interactions that occur the most and then assign a hand signal to let you know the student’s need. A silent communication link is created when you respond to the request with an action, a hand gesture, a nod, or simply a smile.
Click here to see Griselda’s PowerPoint presentation and more procedures her class is eager to follow.
Procedures Allow For Flexibility
Griselda is always consistent. Everyone follows the same set of procedures and knows what to do to succeed. Griselda does not lose her temper, yell, throw objects, thump tables, flick lights, or threaten to leave. Instead, Griselda’s system of classroom procedures is easy to learn and to follow.
With procedures in place, Griselda’s focus is on instruction, instead of discipline. Her students welcomed the shift in the classroom, from always being called out for their behavior and getting into trouble, to one of learning and succeeding.
Griselda allows her students to select their working environment as long as they are quiet, and do not disturb others. Students can select from
working in groups
working with the teacher
Her students were shocked they were being given options for their learning. The students became responsible for how they were learning. News soon spread at the school that Ms. Almonte is fair.
What the students saw as being fair was really what happens when procedures are in the place in any classroom. The teacher is able to be creative in tailoring instruction to the needs of the students.
Griselda asks each student to sign a Teacher-Student Contract.
I will follow all the classroom procedures to the best of my ability. I will do my best to come prepared to class and give my teacher 100% of my attention. This is so that I can learn new ideas and equip myself with the knowledge I need to be successful. I will be honest and respectful of my teacher and peers.
I will always put my best effort to doing well in all my classes.
The high expectation is for students to put forth their best effort at all times.
This contract also contains a commitment from Griselda to the student.
I will teach you to the best of my abilities and I will be sensitive to your needs. I will give you ample time to complete your assignments. I will be honest with
you and give you 100% of my attention.
The student, the student’s guardian, and Griselda all sign the contract asking for everyone’s best effort throughout the school year.
Click here to see Griselda’s Teacher-Student Contract.
The Proactive and Reactive Teacher
We get many letters from teachers seeking advice on what to do with a classroom that is disorderly. Our answer is always the same, “We would be pleased to help, but first, we need to understand your classroom situation. Please share your classroom management plan with us.” We never hear back from the teacher. And we know why.
When it comes to handling behavior problems in the classroom, there are two kinds of teachers—reactive and proactive.
The REACTIVE teacher has no organized classroom structure and reacts to every behavior problem with yelling, screaming, punishment, threats, and coercion to whip the classroom into compliance.
The reactive teacher goes home angry, tired, and stressed out.
The PROACTIVE teacher knows that the greatest problem in the classroom is not discipline. Instead, it is the lack of procedures and routines—the lack of a plan that organizes a classroom for academic success.
The proactive teacher knows how to prevent problems and thus have a successful classroom. This teacher can go home at the end of the day, satisfied with the knowledge that his or her students have learned.
You Are a Teacher—First and Foremost
Let us remind you that Griselda Almonte teaches in a state controlled school. You may have forgotten this for two reasons:
1. How Griselda manages her classroom is what all effective teachers do
in their classrooms no matter the teaching environment.
2. What Griselda expects from her students is what all effective teachers
expect of their students no matter their personal background.
We know that an effective teacher can turn things around—no matter how challenging a situation.
Past columns have featured teachers in similar conditions. Read last month’s column about Marco Campos, another successful inner city school teacher. Elmo Sanchez (August 2007) and Alex Kajitani (December 2007) are inner city teachers who have chosen to be proactive.
Read about Bernie Alidor (May 2008), an amazing kindergarten teacher and Liz Breaux (February 2002), a stress-free teacher in a high poverty school in Louisiana. These teachers all work relentlessly at making things better by constantly learning, trying, tweaking, adapting, applying, observing, monitoring, encouraging, nurturing, and building. At the heart of their efforts is the belief that all children are capable of success and it is their job as teachers to produce that result.
Formula for Success
Griselda’s few weeks of success at the end of the last school year was no fluke. She continues to be the positive influence in her students’ lives and they are responding in return.
“My students are flourishing!
One student had so many F’s on his report card he should not have been promoted. However, our school does social promotions and moved him on. In 7th grade, this student was receiving A’s and B’s in my class! I do not curve my tests. Now, in 8th grade, he has the highest score of a 98A+ in class.
I had a student I could not get through to last year. The student was satisfied with earning D’s due to a disability, but I encouraged him to aim higher. Well, this year is the breakthrough—he has an 85B in my class! I did not make any modifications to his tests, and I can see he is working really hard. I was thrilled to call his mother and grandmother to tell them the news.
I can keep telling you about the amazing achievements my students have made, but the list would be so long! I honestly believe that when you can get your students to trust you, they will work very hard to exceed your high expectations of them.
Overall, it is a tough school. But I am excited to be in the town I was raised in, and excited about getting students enthusiastic about science. In fact, I make it a point to tell them at the start of the year that, ‘If you don’t love Science now, you soon will!’”
While Griselda may lock her door during the lunch period, she has unlocked the doors of learning for her students. Griselda’s chemical equation for her students’ success might look like this:
CY + CE2 + CT + BE SA
some kids need
a double dose
Success for All
The basic elements of success are the same for all classrooms. All effective teachers know the formula and apply it in their classrooms daily. Use the equation each day to produce a predictable classroom environment. Personalize the equation and add the components needed for your situation. The result will yield a unique bond of learning and success for you and your students.
a printable version of this article click
The techniques of effective teachers are replicable. Written ten times a year, Harry and Rosemary Wong's columns feature effective teachers and administrators and their techniques for enhancing student learning. An archive of past articles can be found at the end of every column, with a abstract of all articles at the end of the most recent June column.
For over 20 years, helping teachers become effective has been the passion of the Wongs. Writing for teachers.net is just one of the many ways they reach out to educators with their ideas on how effective teachers improve student learning.
About Harry & Rosemary Wong...
Harry and Rosemary Wong are teachers. Harry is a native of San Francisco and taught middle school and high school science. Rosemary is a native of New Orleans and taught K-8, including working as the school media coordinator and student activity director.
Harry Wong has been awarded the Horace Mann Outstanding Educator Award, the National Teachers Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award, the Science Teacher Achievement Recognition Award, the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award, and the Valley Forge Teacher's Medal. He was selected as one of the most admired people in education by the readers of Instructor magazine. Rosemary was chosen as one of California's first mentor teachers and has been awarded the Silicon Valley Distinguished Woman of the Year Award. She was also honored as a Distinguished Alumnus from her alma maters, Southeastern Louisiana University and Louisiana State University.
Harry and Rosemary have been awarded the Upton Sinclair Award and were nominated for the Brock International Prize in Education.
Harry Wong is the most sought after speaker in education today. He has been called "Mr. Practicality" for his common sense, user-friendly, no-cost approach to managing a classroom for high-level student success. Over a million teachers worldwide have heard his message. Today, Rosemary speaks along with Harry. In spite of their heavily booked schedule, Harry and Rosemary have agreed to write this monthly column so that more people can hear their message.
How They Develop Effective Teachers...
Harry and Rosemary Wong are committed to developing effective teachers, one teacher at a time.
To do this, they have formed their own publishing company, of which Rosemary is the CEO.
Their new audio CD set, How to Be an Effective and Successful Teacher, was recorded live before 800 teachers in St. Louis. Listen as they walk you through classrooms that hum with learning and share how you can replicate the same success in your classroom. In 2 hours and 40 minutes, Harry and Rosemary can transform you into a very effective and successful teacher at no cost!
This presentation has transformed the lives and teaching success of hundreds of thousands of teachers.Learn how to
Begin the school year with a plan
Start class immediately
Have a well-organized and structured classroom
Reduce discipline problems
Have students who are engaged and working
Teach procedures and responsibility
Maximize classroom instructional time
Use lesson objectives so students know what they are to learn
Use rubrics to assess for student learning
Deal with at-risk students
Improve student learning and achievement
The Wongs have written The First Days of School, the best-selling book ever in education. Over 3.6 million copies have been sold. It is used in 116 countries, 2,027 colleges, and most every new teacher induction program. The new, fourth edition includes:
An additional chapter on procedures
A new chapter on assessment with rubrics.
A new chapter on Professional Learning Teams
A new chapter for administrators on implementation
Additional information in Going Beyond Folders
A new DVD, Using THE FIRST DAYS OF SCHOOL, presented by Chelonnda Seroyer
The Wongs have also produced the DVD series, The Effective Teacher, winner of the Telly Award for the best educational video of the past twenty years and awarded the 1st place Gold Award in the International Film and Video Festival.
They also have a successful eLearning course, Classroom Management with Harry and Rosemary Wong. The course can be taken in private at the learner's convenience. The outcome of the course is a 2 inch binder with a personalized Classroom Management Action Plan.
This Action Plan is similar to the organized and structured plan used by all effective teachers. Details for the classroom management course can be seen at www.ClassroomManagement.com.
You can hear Harry Wong LIVE on a set of CDs, called
How to Improve Student Achievement, recorded at one
of his many presentations. He invites you to steal from him the secrets of effective teaching for all grade levels.
Never Cease to Learn has the power to transform your
attitude and your life. In this DVD, Harry shares his journey on the road to success and tells listeners how to become the educators they were meant to be.
When the book, video series, CD, DVD, and eLearning course are used together, they form the most effective professional development training tool for producing effective teachers. Staff developers and administrators who would like to know how to implement the aforementioned book, video series, and CD are encouraged to consult the book, New Teacher Induction: How to Train, Support, and Retain New Teachers. Information about these products can be found by visiting the publisher's website at www.EffectiveTeaching.com or www.HarryWong.com.
Helping you produce effective teachers is our passion.