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by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau
Table of Contents
Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.
—Louisa May Alcott
I couldn't tell you in much detail about my sixth year of teaching, or my tenth, or any other specific year in the 21 years I spent in high school, preschool, and middle school classrooms except my first and fourth years. There are memories from each of the years I taught in public school that will always reside in me, of course, but no other particular years exist in my mind with the sharp detail of those two. It was in those two years that I established my compass as a teacher.
During my teenage years, I vowed never to be a teacher. My mother was a teacher (and immensely proud of her work), which was fine with me—until she and I ended up in the same school during my 6th grade year. It was a hard year for me. Not only was I entering adolescence with an impressive case of self-consciousness, but I was attending a new school in a new town. We had just moved away from the town where I'd spent the entire 11 years of my life to a new city where, on principle, I didn't want to like anything. My mom was a devoted mother. My teacher that year was one of the best I ever had. Nonetheless, it was clear to me that my mother came home with knowledge of things I had said or done during the day. I felt spied on, and that nourished my self-consciousness. With the lack of logic that is adolescence, I concluded that I did not want to be one of those "spy people" who watched kids and told on them. (Forget that my teacher was supportive and kind and tried to make my life better; she was a spy and I was the one spied upon.)
So, I declared, I would do anything but teach when I grew up. I persisted with that declaration at appropriate points in the 10 years that followed—including when my mother explained that I should take education courses in college, "just in case."
I explained with disdain that it was pointless for me to take education courses. Perhaps, I said, she didn't recall that I had long declared I would never, under any circumstances, teach. She told me she would support any college major I chose, as long as I took enough education courses on the side to become certified, "just in case."
I explained with louder disdain that I was a young adult who had earned the right to make her own decisions. She explained with remarkable calmness that she was paying the bill for my college tuition. I took the education courses, found them pointless, and renewed my vow often and vociferously that I would never, ever, under any circumstances be a teacher.
I got my first job as a teacher in late October during my second year out of school. I was working as an advertising manager for a university press and had discovered another job that I disliked. Introvert that I was, I still couldn't warm up to a job that called on me to sit alone in a small room, day after day working with esoteric copy for esoteric books. Then, at lunch one day in October, I found a newspaper ad for a teaching job. Magically, it sounded like a wonderful opportunity.
I took the afternoon off, went for the interview, was hired, adjusted on the spot to my new title of high school English and history teacher, and resigned from the university press. The weekend between my conversion and reality, I experienced the excited apprehension that probably typifies entry into the teaching profession.
On Monday, I arrived at my new K–12 school, which was about an hour and 15 minutes from my house. It was in an area that gave sharp definition to the word rural. The little town had a name, a post office, a flue shop (tobacco-curing supplies), and an auto body shop. The post office closed shortly after I arrived because it had too little business. The flue shop fared well enough because of the local tobacco growers. The body shop thrived because of its location near a railroad track where the road dipped about 12 inches with no warning.
The principal of the school where I was about to begin (what I assumed would be a one-year career) seldom came to school during the early part of the day. He was shy and, I think, quite afraid of the older students. The assistant principal took me to my new classroom as the day began and announced to the very small, elderly teacher in the classroom that he was fired. He had been the teacher for the first six weeks of school, and because he commuted with a carpool, he had no way to go home until the end of the day. He was understandably angry and told me that, since he was no longer employed, I should see what I could do with the class. Despite befuddled terror and massive shyness, I found enough voice to say to him that I'd been promised a day to observe and get textbooks before I started teaching, and so I believed it would be better if I just sat in the back of the room.
For the rest of the day, I watched from the rear of my first classroom as high school girls giggled and chatted and boys crawled in and out of the first floor window and tried (unsuccessfully) to set a large freestanding bulletin board on fire. As I watched, two thoughts played in an endless loop in my mind: "What am I going to do with this chaos tomorrow?" and "I don't think I need a job this badly."
Recall that, as a student, I found my education classes to be without merit. Whether that was the result of the classes themselves or the result of my attitude about taking them, the reality of my new situation was that I had no idea how to teach, which seemed less important than my overriding realization that I had not the first clue about how to "manage" the high school students who were clearly in need of "being managed." At that point, my sole ambition as a teacher had to do with keeping the kids in their seats.
In my overwrought condition, I arrived at my very first lesson plan at 3:42 a.m. on Tuesday morning. It was a truly stupid plan that seemed completely acceptable at the time. I would have the students complete a crossword puzzle with me. The intent of the plan was twofold. First, it would buy me a day to figure out what the students knew and didn't know about American literature and world history— the two subjects, it turns out, I had been hired to teach. Second, it would let me establish myself as someone who gave clear and effective directions to students so we would have order in the classroom—in other words, the kids would stay in their seats.
The crossword puzzle, however, had nothing to do with the either literature or history. Its qualification for my first lesson plan was that it was the only crossword puzzle I could find in the middle of the night. It provided no window at all into my students' knowledge of our content, and the idea students would follow directions simply because I gave them was beyond naïve.
My first day as a teacher should have been a cosmic disaster. Instead, it taught me the first of many lessons I learned that year that have continued to serve me well ever since.
It turns out that my students were from a universe largely unrelated to the one where I grew up. Most of them had never left the insular area where they were born. None of them had college-educated parents, and few of them had any aspirations for a career—or even a job. They had no sense of a wider world. Old suspicions and animosities permeated their community. Yet they were happy, thoughtful, full of a wisdom the likes of which I had never encountered, and wide open to new possibilities despite the fact that they were pretty sure I was from an alien planet. "Outsiders" didn't show up very often in their world.
I got my students' attention when I asked them to take assigned seats as they entered the room. They were surprised because they were unaccustomed to assigned seats, and for a moment, they were caught off guard. Things looked promising. Then I passed out the crossword puzzles, intending to ask students to work in pairs on a specified portion of the puzzle. After a while, we would come together to check the portion of the work they had completed and then proceed in stages—work in pairs, come together, check work, go back to the pairs. It was a plan for the choreography of a teacher giving directions and students following them.
There was a problem with my plan. Not a single one of my 10th grade students, I quickly realized, had ever seen a crossword puzzle. They turned the purple ditto sheets in their hands as if they were seeking some sort of physical orientation to the task. When I realized this, I adjusted my plans accordingly. I'd just give directions to the class as a whole, and we'd figure out the puzzle together. After all, answers to the crossword puzzle were secondary. What mattered was that I gave good directions and that the students followed them.
I hit another more serious roadblock when I read the first clue to the students. It said, "Our country, abbr." The puzzle had three blank boxes for the answer. In the moment that followed, my students' faces and a few verbal hints revealed that (1) no one knew what the clues had to do with the boxes, (2) there might have been some confusion about "across" vs. "down," (3) no one knew what an abbreviation was (yielding a serious problem with the abbreviation of abbreviation), and, most significantly, (4) not a single student knew the name of our country. Once I shared with them the information necessary to address problem 4, after sequences of guesses from students, we encountered a fifth problem—a country whose name has four parts (United States of America) and only three boxes to enter the abbreviation. In all five of my classes that day, the bell rang as I announced that our country was called the United States of America and the abbreviation for that name was USA. It took an entire class, but we were finally ready to enter an answer for clue 1 across.
At the end of the day, I was exhausted, delighted with the extreme orderliness of my classes, and devoid of ideas about what I should do on Wednesday. I was also too tired and too new to understand what I had learned that day, but my first principle of classroom management eventually became clear. When students are engaged, they have no motivation to misbehave. My students were models of deportment on that day not because I stood in front of them and gave directions, of course, but because I had happened onto a task (albeit a vacuous one) that intrigued them.
My education as a teacher continued throughout the year, with a second pivotal lesson about classroom management coming about two weeks later. In the interim, we had good moments and bad. Although I was trying hard, I truly didn't know what I was doing. I couldn't steer a steady course because I didn't yet know why some things worked and others didn't.
It was to my advantage that I was a novelty for the students—a very tall teacher from the outside world who continued to do the unexpected in a school where nearly all the faculty were "lifers" in the community. We still used seating charts, and I was still big on making sure I gave clear directions, which I was attempting to do on the following Monday, when, about 10 minutes after the tardy bell, a formidable girl entered the classroom by slamming the door against the wall and standing with her hands on her hips and an "I dare you to mess with me" look on her face.
The class (which had been listening to the directions for another of my unorthodox assignments) looked at her wide-eyed, signaling that they knew her and were not about to mess with her. That flipped a switch in my head, and I recalled that a student had been absent from first period since I arrived. I smiled at the student and greeted her. "I bet you're Estralita," I said. "I'm Carol Tomlinson, and I'm the new teacher for this class. Everyone has an assigned seat now and yours is right up here." I pointed to a vacant seat in the front row. She stared for another second or two, emitted a sound that can only be described as a snort, and headed for the back of the room.
What happened next could have gone in a very different direction. I smiled at Estralita again broadly and said, "We've missed you, Estralita. I'm glad you're back. Now get your sorry self in your assigned seat up here so you can work with us." Immediately, I launched into the directions again. The class inhaled collectively. Her eyes flashed. She looked puzzled because no one was misbehaving. She pivoted and then stalked to the front of the room, threw her books on the floor, and sat like an angry bull for the rest of the class. I smiled at her again as the period ended and told her I was looking forward to getting to know her. She snorted.
The next day, Estralita was again absent as class began, but a rerun of the day before played out when the door bashed against the wall about 10 minutes into class. As Estralita filled the doorway with both her body and presence, I smiled at her and said, "I'm so glad you came today; I was afraid you were absent." The class froze. She stared. Then, with a harrumph, she launched toward the back of the class. Once again, I said, "Estralita, get your sorry self in your assigned seat" and continued without a pause with what I had been saying. Once again, she surveyed the territory, noticed that the class was with me, stalked to the front of the room, and deposited herself in the empty seat that was assigned to her.
We continued our ballet of the absurd for four days. On Friday, our dance began again. Ten minutes into class, door slamming, Estralita filling the doorway and the classroom with her bulk and anger, teacher smiling and greeting her, pregnant pause, Estralita heading toward the back of the classroom. All the moves were predictable now, except the one that would end the dance.
As she propelled herself to the rear of the room, I began my now well-rehearsed response, "Estralita. …" She interrupted, "I know. I gotta get my sorry self in my assigned seat." And she did. At the time, I didn't realize that something important had happened. I just plowed ahead. In that moment, though, Estralita decided to join us. She made the choice to be a member of the class, rather than a combatant.
Again, I didn't know for several months the importance of Estralita's decision in my survival as a teacher, and it was good that I didn't. It would have undone my fragile sense of "control." Much later in the year, I learned that Estralita had been suspended from school because she had argued with the teacher I replaced and literally knocked him unconscious to the floor. She was absent for my first week because that was the term of her expulsion. I was hired not because I had great credentials in English (and clearly not because I knew history), but rather because I was physically large enough to confront Estralita.
In the end, however, it was not my size that won the day with Estralita. It was her sense that I was somehow accepting of her—that I somehow felt she belonged in the class and that there was a place for her there. In time, I came to understand my second lesson of classroom management: If students understood that I saw them as worthwhile people with significant potential, it opened doors to learning.
My "get your sorry self in your assigned seat" comment could be seen as challenging or sarcastic. It was, however, delivered with a sincere smile and a sense of endearment. She saw in my face and heard in my tone that something was different in the classroom. For the first time she could remember, someone seemed to greet her with positive expectations. It took weeks, if not months, for her to truly begin trusting me, but from our first encounter, she felt invited. That was enough to buy us both some time—and to teach me once again that my penchant for directions was not enough to make me an effective "classroom manager."
I learned many lessons about life and "managing" a classroom during the remainder of my first year as a high school teacher. I learned how to pace lessons, how to organize materials, how to start and stop class with purpose, and how to shift gears if something wasn't going well, to name just a few. It was hard to leave Estralita and her peers when the year ended and I moved to another state. I still think about them nearly four decades later.
My second year as a teacher was spent as director of and teacher in a preschool with a very international population in a metropolitan area. Once again, I had no idea what I was doing. Once again, I learned important lessons through instinct, error, and luck. Once again, my students taught me more than I was prepared to teach them.
It was in my third setting, this time in a district where I would teach for 20 years, that my third career-shaping lesson about "managing" a classroom presented itself. As was the case with my first two schools, the student population pushed on the perimeter of my experiences. In this school, we had a bimodal population. In my 7th grade language arts classes, nearly 50 percent of students read four or more years below grade level, and nearly 50 percent of students read four or more years above grade level. There were almost no "middle" students.
At this point in my development, I was excited to see a new school year begin. I finally believed I was a teacher. The students had not devoured me in terms of "classroom management" during my initial years, and now I even had a clear sense of my curriculum. I had a thick teacher's guide I developed with some of my colleagues during the summer after my first year in the school. Gone were the days of staying up late on Monday to figure out what to teach on Tuesday and then staying up late on Tuesday to figure out what to teach on Wednesday. Thanks to this guide, I not only knew on Monday what I should teach on Tuesday, but I knew in September what I would be teaching in May. With confidence that I was in control of the students and curriculum, I was jazzed when the beginning of my fourth year in the classroom rolled around.
My world shifted rapidly when I met Golden. He was 15 when he came up to me in the hall between classes. Two weeks into the year, he was about to join my 12-year-old 7th graders in second period. He approached me during a class change and whispered something I could not hear. The hall resonated with student talk. He was short and I was tall. He spoke with his hand over his mouth. After three tries, I said to him, "I'm so sorry, but it's really noisy and I just can't hear what you're saying. Let's try this once more. I'll bend down so I'm closer to you so I can hear better. You keep your hand down this time. I want to hear what you're trying to tell me."
What he was saying to me was "I can't read," and he was telling me the truth. He was three years too old for 7th grade, and he did not know the whole alphabet. For my part, I didn't know how to teach reading, but I did know that his "confession" was an act of courage and trust, and there was no way I could let him down.
In that flash of time in the hallway, a rush of questions filled my mind—and they have driven my work ever sense. How do I teach reading when I've never been trained for that? How do I make this boy a respected member of the class when he can neither read nor write? Do I seat him near someone who is really smart and let that student help him? Do I try to hide the fact that he is so far behind? What materials will I use with him? How can I find time to work with him on the things he needs? How in the world will I handle report cards in a way that is not demoralizing? Perhaps my most frightening realization was that the curriculum notebook I was sure would pave the way to my success as a teacher was suddenly an encumbrance—at least in my work with Golden.
For months, I obsessed about Golden as I tried to answer these questions (and others) that wouldn't leave me alone. We made some progress, and I began to figure out a rhythm for working with him in spite of 35 other students in the room. His needs were very different than what the curriculum anticipated, so I began to create a different curriculum for him that was embedded within the wider curriculum I had to teach everyone.
Then I thought about Jonathan. He had been in class all year. He was a good kid, he was smart and funny, and he made good grades. One day in the early spring, though, I really saw him for the first time. I was teaching a lesson on symbols in literature—a tricky topic for 7th graders who are often still a bit concrete in their thinking. I was proud of my concept attainment lesson on the topic. It was well planned, and the kids couldn't have responded better. After an examination of objects and photos of objects, I felt comfortable that the students were ready to name the concept we were pursuing—in this case, symbols. They offered their labels with only modest hesitation. Most students thought the objects should be called "signs." One suggested "trademarks." After a long silence, one final student proposed that we call them "logos."
When it was clear that no one else had any options to offer and silence overtook the class, many students literally looked across the room to Jonathan. In compliance with their silent signal to save the teacher, he raised his hand, sighed, and said with audible weariness, "They're symbols." The students were satisfied to know that if Jonathan had spoken, the right answer was on the table. I was pleased because the awkward silence ended.
We then tried to define the things we'd been happily investigating. The task was too ambiguous—too risky—for most students. I didn't know about Think-Pair-Share or reflective journals or even wait time, and so the silence wrapped around us again. Once more, students looked to Jonathan, and once again, he raised his hand. "What do you think a symbol is?" I asked him gratefully. Once again he sighed and, without pause, provided the definition he carried in his head—had carried in his head for goodness knows how many years. "A symbol," he said, "is an abstract representation of a concrete entity."
In that moment, I understood my third principle of classroom management: The classroom can't work for anybody until it works for everybody!
The problem wasn't that Golden had one set of needs and everyone else had another. The problem was that I had a room full of students with widely differing needs. I couldn't make the classroom work for Golden as well as it needed to because I was trying to "fit him in" around the edges of "the real" agenda. At that point, I saw clearly that my magical curriculum guide failed Jonathan as surely as it failed Golden. I somehow had to learn to plan a classroom where flexibility provided opportunity for everyone.
In other words, I understood at that moment that an effective teacher is not someone who just teaches content. He or she is someone who teaches content to human beings, and the classroom has to work in such a way that each individual in it has a legitimate opportunity to grow as much as possible from his or her starting point.
I realized, then, that classroom management is the process of figuring out how to set up and orchestrate a classroom in which students sometimes work as a whole group, as small groups, and as individuals. The goal would be to have everyone work not only on things they all need to do in common but also on things that were of particular importance for their own individual growth.
This insight indicated considerable growth in me as a teacher. I had progressed from defining "classroom management" as (1) keeping kids in their seats, to (2) giving good directions, to (3) being rooted in engaging curriculum, to (4) stemming from genuine respect for each student, and, finally, to (5) making room for individual and group needs. Each new realization built upon and broadened my understanding of what it meant to be a teacher. Each year in the classroom, each class and each student were catalysts for my continuing growth in understanding and practice.
In time, I came to be a little uncomfortable with the term "classroom
management." I don't like being managed myself, and I realized that I respond much better to being led. Ultimately, I understood that a part of my role was leading students and managing the details and mechanics of the classroom. Therefore, I began to think about the distinction between being a leader in and a manager of the classroom. Still later, I came to understand the interdependence of learning environment, curriculum, assessment, and instruction. I understood more clearly the ways in which classroom leadership and management were part of one system and how they could enable me to use all of the classroom elements to reach each of my students.
Throughout my career, I learned to think about time, space, materials, groups, and strategies in ways that balanced content requirements and the needs of young learners. I happened upon and invented ways to make the classroom more efficient for me and more effective for my students. Likewise, I happened upon and invented ideas that appropriately met a quick demise. This book reflects much of that learning, both things worth considering and things to avoid.
The book that follows is presented in two parts. The first part focuses on what it means for a teacher to effectively lead a differentiated classroom. The second part focuses on the mechanics of managing a differentiated classroom. In practice, of course, teachers must think about both elements at once. It's likely, however, that looking at the roles of leader and manager separately clarifies two complementary but distinct lines of thinking that contribute to teacher and student success.
My coauthor for this book is Marcia Imbeau, a good friend, colleague, and stellar mentor for novice teachers. Her own teaching experience is as rooted in the elementary classroom as mine is rooted in the secondary classroom. We both know that the principles of managing or leading an effectively differentiated classroom are the same across grades and subjects, but we also know that teachers want and need to see illustrations that match their teaching assignments. We hope to provide authentic and tested examples of the principles at work in varied grade levels and in varied subjects.
In addition, we both know there is no recipe for effective leadership and management in a differentiated classroom. We don't pretend to provide one. Our goal is to think aloud from the principles that govern our experiences, invite you to think along with us, and discover ways to expand your capacity as a teacher who works tirelessly to make room for each student.
For us, this is an "aspirational guide." We have no illusions that any teacher— even the best among us—reads a book and emerges with a radically different teaching style in tow. We do believe, however, that there are many teachers who aspire to grow as professionals every day. We believe there are teachers who will read and reread ideas in pursuit of understanding and insight. We believe there are teachers who, despite powerful forces to the contrary, will act with professional integrity in their classrooms and give reality to both deeply held and emerging beliefs to benefit their students. We believe those teachers exist because we have been taught by them and watched them teach. We've written this book for those aspirational teachers who mean to change themselves and their students—and do.
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