As a second-career Teacher, I often find myself referring back to my days as a Marketing Director, and at times call upon those experiences to address current issues I face in education. While some may see this as comparing apples to oranges, nothing can be further from the truth. Unlike many teachers, I have just as much experience in the for-profit sector as I do in education. It would be unrealistic for me to not draw on my previous experiences and successes, even if those successes come from a completely different world. Here are some of the strategies I often employed in my classroom.
Meetings and Rundowns
I always like to start each day with a class rundown. This is time to not only talk about what we’re doing, but WHY we’re doing it. Making this kind of connection is critical for kids, so they understand the return on their own investment (more on this later). I’d also like to take some time to meet as a class and talk about what they feel is going well, or not going well. The idea of using academic time to have an honest dialogue where kids are free to criticize the teacher makes some educators cringe, but I always believed that our students are the greatest evaluators we have, and often times have great ideas on how things can be tweaked to make the class experience better. The best feedback I ever received was when I would handout anonymous surveys to the kids about specific units and the class in general. This gave them the opportunity to be as honest as they wanted, without feeling like they had to say things they thought I wanted to hear. Unlike a review from an Administrator, kids know nothing about pedagogy, and honest student feedback will help you see what your class looks like through their eyes. This comes with a warning, however, because you have to have some thick skin and be willing to listen to actual criticism, because the kids won’t sugarcoat it. An anonymous student survey will give you the most practical feedback that you’ll ever receive.
Return On Investment
The business world revolves around the idea of earning the best return on investment possible. The goal is to understand the amount of return on an investment relative to the investment’s cost. There is literally nothing more important than getting students to understand what they are investing in. Their whole lives they hear that they need to do well in school so that they can go to college and have a good job. Imagine as an adult going to work every single day with the single motivating factor being that someday, way down the line, you can retire and have a nice life. Without any short-term goals or rewards you’d be miserable for the next 30 years. Kids are no different. They need to understand today how this is going to impact their life, so that the cost on their investment is worth it to them. By offering something tangible instead of something abstract, they will begin to see that coming into school everyday is actually worth the effort.
I know in my own classes I’ve met with students and tried to figure out what makes them tick, to find out what can inspire them. When you fish around enough, and find that nerve, it will unlock a drive in that kid that you’ve never seen before. The first time this worked for me, I met with a boy who wasn’t doing well in my class. He was a good kid, and smarter than his grade reflected, but he wasn’t get his work done. After many conversations he told me how it hurt him to see his grandma working all the time. So I took that opportunity to show him that by him doing his work and doing well in school, he was giving himself the opportunity to one day get a good job so that he could take care of his grandma and she would never have to work again. I told him the happiest day of his life will be the day when he sits his grandma down, thanks her, and tells her she doesn’t have to work anymore. Then I told him when things get hard, and he feels like he can’t do it, to think about what that moment will feel like for him, and that will give him all the strength and courage he needs to fight through it. I had another kid who told me it bothered him that his mother worked two jobs and wasn’t around a lot. I had essentially the same conversation with him to get him to see that his mother was working so that he could have the opportunities that she never had. And even though he might not see the point in learning the Pythagorean Theorem or Scientific Method, if he put in the work, he would one day have the opportunity to get a good job and buy his mother a house so she wouldn’t have to work two jobs.
As an adult, I know if I don’t do my work, I’ll lose my house and my family will have no place to live, or I won’t be able to buy food and my kids won’t eat. These are the things that motivate us as adults, and if we can get our students to see this as well, it will be 100 times more effective than providing rewards like candy, or homework passes, or even good grades. Make it real for kids and it will give them a reason to get up, to come to school, and to give it everything they’ve got.
Make it tangible. Make it personal. Make them see that this is the greatest return on investment that they will ever get in their entire lives.
Customer Satisfaction and Brand Loyalty
Okay, bear with me on this, but I want you to think about this in the most honest way possible. If your students had a choice, would they choose to come to your class everyday? Most of us have our students for 180+ days, and in this marathon of a year, it can be easy to lose focus on customer (student) satisfaction. But if they had a choice, would they choose you or your class? Yes, we all have curricular mandates and standardized tests, but are you doing everything in your power to make that classroom experience everything it can possibly be for the students? I’m not going to lie, I used to love when kids would come into my ELA class and told me that my class was the only class they enjoyed coming to, because that was my goal! Get them to want to come to your class! Look, I know I wasn’t the best teacher, but getting kids to want to come to class helped me in more ways than I can possibly explain.
One of my favorite moments as an educator came in the first month of my teaching career. I was new to the profession, it was much harder than I thought it was going to be, and I wasn’t sure if I had what it took. I had one student in particular who was always out of his seat, always talking, and never doing his work. He was the recipient of the first detention I ever gave out. At that point, I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to do for a detention, but I knew I had to do something. So I made him come for a lunch detention. As he ate his lunch, I went over and sat with him and we just had a heart to heart. I got to know him, and he got to know about me. At the end of lunch he said, “This was pretty cool Mr. Spada, can I come again tomorrow?” I immediately felt like a failure, because this kid enjoyed my detention so much that he wanted more of it! I told him if he behaved in class and did his work he could come back, and he could even bring a couple of friends. Sure enough the next day he was back and brought a couple of his buddies. This student came to eat with me a few days a week for a couple of months, all the while his grades were steadily improving and his impulsive outbursts became less frequent. Fast forward to November, I was feeling the fatigue as a first year teacher, and still had doubts that I could handle this job. I remember talking to this student’s father at conferences and he mentioned how his son loved coming to my class and how he talked about me all the time. I told him that he was doing amazing work and has really turned things around. I also told him that his son’s grade was almost an A-, and if he kept working hard he would be there soon. Even though this son’s grades were fairly poor in other subjects, his father was really happy that he was doing so well for me. The next morning came a moment I will never forget. The student walked into my room and gave me one of the biggest hugs I’ve ever gotten and said, “Thank you Mr. Spada. My father told me what you said last night, and for the first time told me that he was proud of me.” It was honestly one of the most powerful moments of my career, and at that moment I knew this was for me.
If this was a business, I would have earned that student as a customer for life. In education, we should still consider our students the same way and approach each class as though we’re fighting to keep them coming back every single day. While they may not have a choice between you and another teacher, or your class and another class, they do have the choice whether to give you everything they have or not. They have the choice whether they go above and beyond for you or not. They have the choice whether they come to your class passionate and ready to learn, or simply show-up because they have to.
Play To Individual Strengths
I don’t know many businesses that rely on their marketing staff to balance their books, or their accountants to do sales. It’s simply not where their skill sets are. Any business leader worth anything will get the most out of his or her employees by playing to their strengths. When I first began teaching, a colleague of mine introduced me to a layered curriculum. I wasn’t familiar with the concept, but when I saw that it gave students the option to select the activities that they wanted, I got very excited. The thought of an artist being able to demonstrate learning through art, or a poet being able to demonstrate learning through poetry, or a kid who enjoys making movies being able to demonstrate learning through multimedia, should inspire any educator. So I took this idea and tried to adapt it to many different areas of the classroom. Is it always possible? Of course not. It is possible more times than not, however, but it takes planning, patience, and the ability to give-up a bit of control.
My first year as a Library Media Specialist, I worked with a Social Studies class to make videos for a national contest they entered. The students had to find a human rights activist and create a video to submit that talked about this person’s life. I was working with a particular group, and noticed that one of the students had an amazing eye for composition (which is an incredibly difficult thing to teach middle school students). I asked her where she learned to film like that, and she told me that she just did what felt right. The more I talked to this girl, the prouder she became. She started coming in and showing me pictures she took of nature and things around her house, and some of them were stunning. When I talked to her teacher, he mentioned how poorly she was doing in his class, mostly due to the amount of work she hadn’t handed in. Yet here was the same girl, going above and beyond on this project that she actually ENJOYED doing. Had she been required to do the same essay they had always done, she would have been uninspired, and may not have even completed the work. But by finding something she was passionate about, she studied and researched more than she had all year, and turned in a project she was excited about and proud of.
Goal Setting and Reviews
Setting and achieving goals is one of the most important things executives of large companies do. Fiscal years are judged by whether arbitrary goals have been met or not. Teachers, administrators, state officials, and more all set measurable goals for our students. But what do our students want to achieve? Having a direct conversation with a student to find a goal that is meaningful to him or her will go a long way to keeping that student motivated throughout the year. As professionals, we all have goals we have to meet. The students have goals they have to meet as well. Yet, as professionals we are always looking for professional development to grow in ways that go beyond our measurable and arbitrary goals that are set for us. Students are no different. Yes, they must score a certain number on a standardized test. Yes, they have to get a certain grade. But what about the aspects of their lives that go beyond their test scores? When I taught Language Arts, I would always have my kids come-up with a personal goal for themselves. Whether it was learning better study habits, being more comfortable talking in front of the class, or any number of things, they were choosing something that was meaningful to them. They still had to perform on standardized tests, but their year didn’t just revolve around that.
Throughout the year, we’d have several mini-review sessions where I’d check-in with them to see how they were doing on their goal, as well as how they were doing in the class, in school, and in life. And like any good boss, I’d ask what I could do to support them in any or all of these areas. The grades, the test scores, and the measurables are all important, but these are children going through a time of rapid changes, and frequent check-ins can help a teacher keep a student on the path to success in all of these areas.
Because of my background in television production and as a Marketing Director, I see education through a different lens, and this view has helped me bring a real-world approach to educating my students. We know there is no one way of being successful in the classroom, but my boardroom experiences have made me appreciate that there are many ways to inspire children and help them grow.