How do we translate familiar routines to a classroom environment that for many of us is still uncertain.
Today on the podcast we're joined by Berit Gordon, author of The Joyful Teacher: Strategies for Becoming the Teacher Every Student Deserves. In her book, Berit lays out goals and corresponding strategies for building an efficient and joyful learning environment.
Today, Jaclyn and Berit discuss routines and rituals, one of the goals from The Joyful Teacher.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Jaclyn: Welcome, Berit. Thank you for joining us today.
Berit: Thanks for having me. I'm so happy to get the chance to talk to you.
Jaclyn: So, your recent book, The Joyful Teacher, came out in May. Honestly, right, in the middle of the time we all needed to make space for finding joy. Can you tell us how the book came to be? What kinds of thinking and experiences led you to getting this on paper?
Berit: I absolutely love teaching, but I will say, teaching is also really hard. It's all I've done for almost 25 years, either as a teacher or working with teachers. One thing that seems consistent throughout is just that teaching is really challenging. People put in so much hard work. And I think it's like... I mean, maybe there's a listener out there and they need to email me and let me know if this is the unicorn among the listeners is like, if you drive home at the end of your teaching day and you pat yourself on the back and you say, yeah. I really just knocked it out of the park today. I killed it in there. I did such a great job. And what I find is that teachers work so hard and yet so seldomly feel that sense of, I really got this. I really know what I'm doing and I feel good. And I am good at this complicated task of reaching all these students.
And so, my book really is wanting to make teaching feel easier for people, wanting to up that joy and lessen the struggle. Because it is such an essential job. And it's really the book, I think, I wish I had had throughout my teaching career. It's the book I wish I had had both as a new teacher and as a more experienced teacher. I know, as a new teacher, I just felt like I was getting pummeled by waves. Right? Like a wave would come and I would like just barely catch my breath and then boom, another wave would come. So, a wave like even just setting up my classroom, which is why a strategy is in that for the book.
But I would set up my classroom. I remember spending days, and days, and days prepping my room before students ever came in. I made it beautiful. I hadn't even had a paycheck yet. I went to Ikea and bought bean bags and cute pillows for reading a nook. And I bought a labeler. And I labeled everything. And I created these gorgeous bulletin boards with beautiful, inspiring quotes. And I think by day four, the stuffing had been ripped out of the bean bags. The label had all been torn off. No one had read or been inspired by any of those calligraphy quotes I had spent hours on. And that was just like that wave hitting me.
And then, as those waves hit, where we're working so hard but we're not sure what to do, I think a lot of us go out and try to figure out the answer, which is what I did. I poured through all my books from graduate school. I asked everyone I knew. I went an spied on the rock star teacher down the hall, Danielle. I was like, well, how did she set up her room? Right? I was just so desperate for an answer. It wasn't that I was scared of hard work. I just didn't know where to put that hard work.
And, before I could even catch my breath from that way, then there's like the other wave of lesson planning, which is why I have strategies in the book for that. Because I would spend every night planning for the very next day in front of me. I would spend hours and happily would have poured money into teachers, pay teachers units, if I thought it was actually going to help me survive my fifth period class the next day. And what would happen is I would plan all these lessons for hours and then, halfway through the lesson, I could just see students like almost changing the channel on me. They're like, yep. That's kind of boring. I'm checking out. And I'd say, all right. Let's do a word search. And that is something that I swore I would never do as a teacher. But I was, again, just so sort of desperate for answers.
And then, I would have a wave of getting pummeled by grading. I was spending all my weekend grading and pouring over, agonizing over the comments of just the right mix of praise and constructive criticism. And I made sure I didn't have a red pen. It was always a purple pen. And I would hand back all this work. And then, I would find the student work on the floor, in the trash. I would get the next round of student work and they would be doing all the same mistakes. So, I knew what I was doing wasn't working. And it felt almost like a hazing. Right? Like my first few years of teaching, it was sort of like duck your head and run and just get through to the other side.
And my wish is that it weren't quite so brutal. I mean, I worked with a new teacher in New York City, fourth grade teacher, and I talked to her one day. And she said, as I was crossing the street, this cab like got really close to me in the intersection. And she thought, well, if he just bumped me hard enough, this is going to sound so horrible, like bumped me hard enough that it wasn't really hurt, but I just had to have a cast on my leg, I wouldn't have to show up to work today. Because she was so overwhelmed with how to get through this, this really hard part of teaching.
My husband is a second career teacher and went into teaching with phenomenal training, and all of these great books, and colleagues, and resources. And I think he lost 20 pounds in the first three months of teaching because he was so stressed and overwhelmed. And so, partly the book is written for those new teachers. Because I don't want it to be that they join that I believe it's 40% of all teachers leave teaching within the first five years because they go in wanting to do well and then, yet feeling like it's just impossibly hard.
And then, I would say that I also wrote it for the more experienced teacher and even myself as a more experienced teacher because what happened after I got through that sort of like wave after wave, was that, okay, maybe the waves get more spaced out. They're a little gentler. But, once I was through that sort of panic phase of getting through teaching and I didn't need a nap and a Snickers bar every day at three before I started my seven hours of planning and grading, was that I then noticed other gaps in my teaching. I noticed, oh, Katie Chan hasn't said a word in class in three months. And she has some of the smartest things to say. Or I'm using my smart board basically like a glorified overhead. Or I have all these texts and resources by dead white men. And the students I'm teaching are Latinx, and Asian, and queer, and disabled. And I don't have any text and resources that speak to or reflect who they are.
So, I have strategies for those issues too, because I think no matter where you're at in your teaching, you always want to get better. You always want to do better. But it's hard to know where to go. And I do, again, just want to lessen that feeling of struggle and to help teachers feel like I've got this. I can do this.
Jaclyn: Yeah. Thank you. So, it sounds like... I keep thinking about the waves pummeling me and remembering so many things. You mentioned something earlier. You said, when you have those good days and you pat yourself on the back, we need to have more of those. And I used to call those the I taught days. I would lean into my neighbor teacher and say, I taught today. Just the days that you really felt like things made it. But you're right. We need to have more of those.
So, it sounds like, if teaching is so chaotic, then maybe the great way to get to the point where we can pick goals for ourselves is to find something organized. So, tell us how the book is organized, because it sounds like you organized it to sort of address that, to be the calm in the storm, so to speak.
Berit: Yes. Wonderfully put. I did create this book, which is really a warehouse of teaching strategies. It's not a book... while I would love teachers to read it front to back, it's not a book that needs to be read cover to cover. It's really designed so teachers can pick and choose the strategies that work for them. And all of the strategies are essentially a compilation of best hits of all the strategies that I've used in my classroom, that I've told countless teachers about. And they tell me, Berit, that worked. That really worked. I had that issue and I tried that thing. And now, I see it's working. So, I give teachers access to that kind of whole album. If you want the whole album, there's always a reference to a wonderful book, or website, or resource where you can go find out more about, say, how to make group work tick.
But the book is really, again, that sort of very practical how to strategies and just a page or two of very concrete, step-by-step go try this. See if that helps you get to your goal. And, as you said, it is really designed by teaching goals. So, there are ten chapters. And every chapter is a different teaching goal. And the chapters are designed or arranged rather in a progression of goals. So, it's not the one teaching goal is more important or more sophisticated than the other. It's more that it's a progression that you're getting the foundation in place so you're setting yourself up for success.
So, for instance, I might really want to work on getting, well, this happened in my classroom, I was told it was a school initiative. You have to have everybody in groups and you have to have everybody really productive and collaborating. And so, I tried that, but it never really took off because I think what I hadn't addressed first, and that's why it's an earlier chapter, is how to first really establish relationships in my classroom, both between me and students and relationships among students, so that they trusted one another, they felt safe in my classroom, and that they could take risks in a small group together. So, that's what I mean in terms of a progression of teaching goals. But it's all designed so teachers can go in and choose the goal that's right for them. Because we know, in a classroom, it's never one size fits all. Right? There's never one thing that unilaterally all of our students need and benefit from at the same time.
And I think, while I understand my schools will have school wide initiatives, it's very rare that that initiative is just what every teacher needs and will benefit from focusing on. So, I know, when I really needed to work on relationship building, my school's initiative was higher order thinking skills. And it just didn't speak to me. It wasn't what I was really hungry for.
And so, the book is designed so that teachers can look at each of the goals, they can do a quick self assessment checklist and see, is this the goal that's right for me? Do I need to work on a feedback? Or should I go back a couple chapters and think about how to first set up students for more independent work? And then, they can figure out the goal that works for them, choose from a whole host of strategies to help them meet that goal. And then, yes, ideally get to that I taught today. Like pat yourself on the back like I did it. But one goal at a time. Because I know teachers are so ambitious and expect so much of themselves. We're really tough on ourselves, I think, in ways that we wouldn't be to students, but we are to ourselves. We expect ourselves to get good at everything all at once, but that's almost setting ourselves up for frustration. So, the idea is, choose one goal at a time, work on that, see progress, pat yourself on the back, do it again, and build that foundation one goal at a time.
Jaclyn: It sounds as though you get your own sort of personal coach, your own teaching coach with the book, because you can kind of open it and, through the self assessment and the way it's organized, just sort of work through finding what you want to focus on, just like if you were sitting and having a conversation with a coach.
Berit: Yes. Because I find more and more, it's so rare... I mean, I get to work with the most phenomenal people. Teachers are my favorite people. I get to work with them, but I might be in their school at most one day a month. And then, maybe, if they're lucky, they have a coach that they see additionally one day a month. And the rest of the time teaching is oddly this very lonely endeavor. Yes, you're in a room with tons of people, but they're not your instructional colleagues. They are students who are waiting for you to lead the way. So, I agree. I hope for teachers that they get phenomenal PD, and have time to read professional books, and they get coaching. But I think, as we're seeing often less and less time for that and budgets for that, and no matter what, teachers need ways to supplement, like you said. I would love that, for this book to be a bit of a personal coach that teachers can dip into as needed, and pick and choose what they need.
Jaclyn: Yeah. And what good timing for that. I think teachers, right now, they need a resource that's going to help them focus in on how to sustain in this profession and also deal with change. Which actually brings me to the next thing that I wanted to talk about today was, thinking about how all of education had to revamp our thinking, and our approach, our pedagogy, our skillset over night, just this past spring, can you share a bit about what that learning process was like for you as you merged your expertise with remote learning strategies?
Berit: Yes. And I think, again, when I say teaching is hard, that was something we were all reminded of. I think everyone I knew was on the cusp of burnout this last spring, as we were trying to shift so quickly and deal with often our own children that we were homeschooling at the same time, or just worry about what was happening. And I work with very few teachers who in the spring weren't facing burnout.
And so, I think of the teacher I know who spent all day up in her second floor creating these amazing Zoom lessons and trying to confer with students. And then, she didn't notice the time. And she came down at four o'clock and her own two children hadn't had lunch. It was four o'clock and she hadn't seen them all day. And that whole time management was hard. And I think, again, it comes back to, we didn't necessarily have the strategies and the tools to know where to put our energy and how to have that hard work pay off. So, we were flying a bit blindly.
And then, we all had a learning curve. I know I had a huge learning curve. Little things like, I know now how to put the camera so it's not looking up my nose or giving me a double chin. Right? I know how to do breakout rooms in Zoom. One of my strategies in the book is about concise instruction, but I had to reconfigure that to learn how to do really concise instruction in a Zoom lesson. And so, I could devote more time to, say, social and emotional learning and feedback. But those were big learning curves. And I think we're better prepared now for the fall because we're not doing that fly by the seat of our pants.
But the truth is, we do still need strategies. We need those tried and true moves so we feel good and we are good at online instruction. And that we're sort of, again, taking it one goal at a time. And I know, for many of us, my own learning curve too, also the pandemic has coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement. And I've had a huge heightened awareness and commitment to making sure that, whether it's online or in person instruction, that students of color feel safe and welcomed and that their voices are valued and heard. And I've been gaining a lot of strategies and tools for that, but also realizing there's still a long ways to go.
So, I think, while this has pushed us a lot to grow in really important ways, it's also, again, it's like that lull between the waves, realizing the gaps in our instruction and how desperate so many of us feel to have really practical tools that we can try. So, that's why I've been designing online corollaries to all the strategies in the book, which actually are somewhat small shifts, as I've been working through them. It's still the foundation and the progression of teaching goals remains the same. And many strategies stay the same. But there are ways that we can do things such as how to create routine beginnings that are going to look a little different when it's a Zoom class than it is when they walk into the physical door of their classroom.
Jaclyn: I'm thinking about routines, and rituals, and how different that must be online, or not must be, how different it is. And, thinking about that, this is goal three. And you said something earlier that made me think of finding your priorities. And, when I was teaching, my first few years of teaching, someone asked me, what do you think the most important thing to tell a new teacher would be? And I said, it's learning how to prioritize. That was the first thing, for sure, prioritizing for yourself and for students. And when, I look at goal three, routines and rituals, that is by far, for me, like the high priority in an in person classroom, but certainly online as well.
And so, we need to maintain these because it creates clarity and sometimes comfort for everyone. And it's a good place to start. So, if people are out there feeling overwhelmed, thinking, where do I start for planning for fall, now that we have a moment to catch our breath, can you talk a little bit about how you see routines and rituals playing out online, but especially why you lean away from the word management?
Berit: I love that you picked up on that. That, even though I have, it's the only teaching goal that I actually have two chapters devoted to, which is management. Because, as you speak of as well, we know that, unless our classrooms are predictable, safe, that students know what to do, and where to go, and how to function in a respectful environment, almost nothing else can fall into place. It is the foundational goal. And so, I have those two chapters, but as you said, management is the first word, but the subtitle to chapter three is routines and rituals. And the subtitle to chapter four is relationship building. Because, actually, what we want to avoid is management.
My thinking has changed a lot because I was not necessarily taught. I was taught in a more traditional way. I began my teaching career with a more top down, compliance kind of management system. Right? So, this is... I remember the first time I taught middle school. The students came in, and they were in their first day outfits, and they had their new backpacks, and haircuts, and they were just full of energy, and happiness, and excitement. And then, they went to seven different teachers' classrooms and they got seven different policies of rules and consequences. And I watched them as they left the building and it was like their dog died. I mean, they were just deflated.
So, that's just even personally I know that I no longer ever want to start with a list of rules and punishments. But it's also because I've done so much reading about how that punitive model really mimics our prison system. And suspension rates in this country are far disproportionate toward black, male, disabled students more than any other. And I don't want to replicate that in my classroom. And I don't want other teachers to have to either.
And so, when I read books like Monique Morris's Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls, or I read books by Zaretta Hammond about culturally responsive teaching, I read books about restorative practices, more and more I'm thinking about how we can get to management, which is again, a really well-functioning community of learners and a classroom where we can put our energy into teaching and students can put their energy into learning, how we can get to that management, but again, through routines and rituals, not necessarily here's my behavior chart and here are my rules. I mean, I say all of this and I will tell you right now, like my seven year old, I just bribed him with extra Minecraft time if he's quiet while we record this podcast. I'm not above it. It's not like I don't regress into rewards, of course. But what I aim to do and what the strategies in the book can really help us be mindful of is how to create those routines so that we don't spend all our energy threatening and getting through compliance.
And I will say, it's one of the most consistent threads in the strongest classrooms I get to be in is that they don't skimp on these routines and rituals at the beginning of the year. And I think the more that we can plan for this for the fall for whether it's hybrid, or virtual, or in person, that we devote, especially since kids haven't been with us in person for months, that we really don't skimp on this. And I mean this for K-1 teachers as much as 10th and 11th grade teachers.
Because I know, when I taught high school, in the fall, we spent a lot of time on things like name games, and relationship building, and making sure people knew the names of everyone in the class, and that they knew how to come into the room looking ready to learn. And I remember worrying because the class across the hall, they were already halfway through Romeo and Juliet. It's like, oh no. We're so behind. We're so behind. We're still practicing what it looks like to turn in your homework and how to turn and talk. But the truth is, not that it's a race, but the truth is, by December we were far ahead because then we didn't have to devote all that time to me repeating instructions or redirecting students because we had that in place.
So, yeah. None of the strategies are really that rewards kind of management system. It's a different set of strategies, but they really work. And I've seen classrooms benefit immensely from getting those routines in place.
Jaclyn: And I love that, thinking about the fall, we can pick a goal to focus on. And now, we have the spring to reflect on, knowing what went well and what didn't go well. And everyone has had those conversations for sure. And so, I'm trying to think about starting the year in any of those formats, in in-person, hybrid, or online. And I'm wondering if you could talk about one of the strategies from goal three in your book and just kind of tell us what that might look like in any of those formats?
Berit: So... oh, there's so many. But I think, for instance, one of the strategies that I think is really key, whether it's hybrid, in person. Or online is that we spend time teaching really basic routines and that we don't make any assumptions about what we think students should already know how to do. Because I think sometimes we think, well, kids are coming into me at whatever age it is. Like, okay. They're nine. Like I shouldn't have to teach them how to get in a line. Or they are 15. I shouldn't have to teach them how to mute their microphone.
But the fact is that a lot of them either really need that explicit instruction or they need reminders of that instruction. And the more that we can front load, and get ahead of it, and really teach those even what we think are basic routines, the more we're setting students up for success. And we also don't shame them. Right? The last thing we want is for a student to be embarrassed because they replied all when they should have just replied to the one sender of the email. Like let's teach them how to do that.
So, I think some of the routines that I, for instance, would really explicitly plan to be teaching would be things like how to mute the microphone, how to upload a file, how to click a hyperlink, how to invite someone else to talk in the breakout room, even how to create a Bitmoji.
This is a really big one because I work with a teacher whose students essentially opted out of class, one of those students who fell off the grid in online learning. Couldn't track them down. And she found out months later that he stopped attending class because they all needed to have their camera on. Well, his only workspace in his crowded apartment was the top bunk. And his grandparents slept on the bunk below him. There is no way he was going to attend class with his camera on. But, if we had taught a basic routine at the very beginning of class that everyone needs to create a virtual background. I'm going to model it for you. I'm going to have a little video here that explains how to do it that you can pause and watch again as many times as you want. We're all going to create one right now together. That's going to pay off so that we don't have to sort of play catch up later on.
So, I really encourage teachers to think through all the potential routines that they're going to want students to be able to do seamlessly, almost without thinking. But to first really make sure that we walk students through that move. We break it down into really simple steps and we practice it with them, and that we really don't make any assumptions, especially for older students, that they know how to do these things virtually.
Jaclyn: I think that's really important, not making assumptions. Because it goes with online etiquette as much as it does with skills. Thinking, oh, well they're in seventh grade. Why aren't they putting punctuation in their sentences. Or they're in second grade, of course they know how to choose a book, that kind of thing. We can't make any assumptions, no matter what the environment.
Well, thank you so much, Berit. I'm really looking forward to thinking about this book more, thinking about hybrid formats and schools in the fall, just to kind of see what this looks like. So, I'm really glad that you were able to come talk with us today about routines and rituals and about how the book is organized, so that some teachers can get their hands on it and really start to feel like they can find some strategies to have a successful fall.
Berit: Thank you so much too. It's a pleasure. And I also thank any teacher who took the time to listen. And I hope you find lots of ways to up the joy and lessen the struggle, as we launch into what is certainly going to be a challenging fall for everyone.
Berit Gordon brings many years of teaching experience in New York City high schools as well as in the Dominican Republic to her literacy coaching work. She is a graduate and former instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Berit is the author of No More Fake Reading, which offers solutions for boosting stamina, joy, and skills among adolescent readers. Whether running workshops, leading literacy coaching sessions, or working in classrooms, Gordon strives to help students fall in love with reading and writing, and to lay the groundwork so they are experts at both for life. She lives with her family in Maplewood, New Jersey.