An Excerpt from Thoughts for Effective Teaching by Tiffany Tyndall — The Entirety of 3. Choose Your Battles

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to learn how to choose your battles.   Of course it’s important that all students should learn to be on time, turn in homework, bring their own pencils, and use manners.  But the sad fact is that, for a lot of students, these things aren’t important to them because the stuff they’re going through is very difficult to bear.

Even if some of us haven’t experienced hunger, abuse, neglect, despair, or berating, we can still imagine what this might be like, day in and day out.  We can still remember what it was like to live with our parent(s) as a young adult, whether as a young child, adolescent, or teenager.

Some of our students have it bad; they may be going through their parents’ divorce, they may have to take care of younger siblings, there might not be a lot of money at home, or their home might simply be not very loving.

Whatever the case may be, hold some of this stuff in the back of your mind the next time you want to wring a student’s neck because they didn’t bring a pencil to class with them.  Sure, you can fight the battle of personal responsibility through a pencil if you’d like to, but there are more effective ways to fight this battle than by getting all bent out of shape because students don’t come to class with their own writing utensils.

How’s this for addressing an issue like the personal-responsibility-through-a-pencil issue?  Instead of teaching this lesson by saying “too bad” when students ask for a pencil, which will lead to more disruptions because they’ll either ask to borrow a pencil from other students or they’ll sit there and not do work on account of not having a pencil, simply have a container of pencils that students can borrow from.

Emphasize that students are responsible for having their own pencil.  If they have to borrow from the class container, then they may—as long as they don’t draw unnecessary attention to themselves while getting the pencil.  It’s good to place this container in the back of the room if possible.

Tell students that you’d like your pencils back, but if students happen to “take” the pencils with them, whether on accident or on purpose, don’t have a cow!  Just replace the pencils in the container.

By having pencils available to students, you take away one of the excuses they love to use to get out of doing work.  Also, you are placing the responsibility back on them for having a pencil so that they don’t have to always be asking you for one.

Now, if you can stomach some team suggestions, here’s the pencil container maximized to its fullest potential: have a “supply” box at each team-table.  At each team-table, you’ll arrange students in teams of three to five.  In this supply box, you’ll include a few pencils along with a hand-held sharpener.  You could also include some erasers if you want.  This way, students don’t even have to get up!

Just take a walk around the team-tables at the end of the day and replenish the pencils; usually keep about four or five in each supply box.  If you notice that all the pencils seem to be walking out of the room, then try not to put the “new” pencils in the supply boxes.  The new pencils are free from the office, but so are the pencils you find on the ground in the hallway.

The ground?  Sure!  Keep a look out.  Many of these finds are perfectly good pencils, but since they aren’t completely brand new, they aren’t quite as tempting to “take.”  Keep a stash of these pencils in your closet, desk, or on your shelf.  You will be amazed at how many pencils you’ll collect in year, which means fewer pencil requests from the office.  But if that sounds like too much work, then the office always has free pencils.

Why all this concern over pencils?  Because we can lose ourselves in trying to teach students a lesson through means that are less than the best.  Save the steam for things that matter.  Tackle the bring-your-own-pencil battle with students who have already mastered the other things like paying attention, showing respect, and completing assignments.

And ignore any teacher who wants to label you as enabling for making free pencils available to your students.  This kind of enabling is the good kind, where you are enabling students to do the right thing.  If students want to pitch a fit because they don’t want to get a pencil that is readily available to them without any embarrassment or criticism, then now is the time that you can make an issue out of it.

It’s now clear that the student is choosing not to participate because he or she can’t say that it’s your fault for not giving him or her a pencil or for making him or her feel bad for not having one.  You have streamlined the consequence process because you have eliminated yourself out of the equation.  Students love to blame the teacher because they often get away with it.  Don’t let them do it with the pencil thing.

Thoughts for Effective Teaching: Maintaining Perspective and Remaining Reflective While in the Trenches of Teaching by Tiffany Tyndall is available for purchase here.

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