The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Book Review IV: The First Days of School

Today is Good Friday, so there is no school in Champaign, Mahomet, or Urbana. The official name for the day off is “Spring Holiday” but I don’t think there is anyone who believes that it is merely coincidence that this day off occurs each year on Good Friday. And thus it is that I have spent my day taking care of things around the home, like washing and bagging fresh fruit and vegetables for my wife and I to grab for snacks while at work and cleaning up around the house.

As is my policy now, if I have the day off and have recently finished reading a vocational book, I write up a review. I don’t know how many people actually read the reviews or find them useful, but I do know that, by far, the most popular post of mine (based on specific page views and search terms), has been my review of The Dreamkeepers. The two other books I have read and reviewed so far have been Setting Limits in the Classroom and The Internet and the Law.

The next book in this series is How To Be an Effective Teacher: The First Days of School by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong. This is billed as the best-selling book in the education field. While it is ostensibly about the importance of the first days of school, it is much more than that. It is a book that emphasises the need for teachers to stop being workers and start being professionals. While I find that parts of it are outdated (I have a copy of the 2nd edition, though, so it is possible that the 4th edition is up-to-date), it is an excellent source for information on not just how to start the school year off right, but why the thing suggested are suggested.

I am very impressed that the Wongs start off saying, “Look, we aren’t presenting a method. We aren’t suggesting that you do everything that is in this book exactly as it is written. In fact, if you try to do that, you will fail. What we are presenting are principles of effectiveness, with examples to show how they have been carried out by your peers across the nation.” Throughout the book, there is a combination of principles and practice that make for a very easy read. In fact, I read the first hundred pages or so in one sitting (although it took me several weeks after that to read through the rest due to scheduling and time constraints).

My goal in reviewing this book is not to provide a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. For one, the Wongs did not write the book to be read from page one to page 1 to page 338 sequentially, even though that is how I chose to read it. It is meant to be used as a resource to which you can return again and again, looking up the specific information you need. In that regard, this is an excellent book. I love the organisation, I love the principles, and I love the suggestions. Off all the parts of the book, though, my absolute favourite is the concluding section, which discusses how to go about becoming a master in the field of education.

Something I have noticed in my work over the past several years has been the different kinds of teachers. The Wongs break them down into two categories: the worker-teacher and the leader-teacher. They even take it a step further and try to show the difference between a teacher and an educator. However, I am not comfortable with that division, simply because it becomes too… well, as much as I dislike the word, it is the best choice I can think of: pedantic. I am comfortable with identifying the difference between a teacher and a professional educator, though. That adjective in front of the latter term makes all the difference in the world when discussing mastery of the profession.

I know men and women who teach as a job. They come when required, they do the minimum, and they leave when the clock says it is time to go. There are far too many teachers in the world. But I also know many, many more who are professional educators. I don’t know how many have read The First Days of School, but I am willing to bet that, if they have, they agree with everything contained in these final chapters. Some of the suggestions that the Wongs make regarding becoming a professional are these:

  • Join a professional organisation that provides a source of support, encouragement, and professional development.
  • Read books and journals about the profession. Subscribe to at least one professional journal.
  • Attend conferences and workshops and prepare papers to share at them.
  • Observe other effective teachers and see what works for them. Invite teachers and administrators to observe you and provide critical feedback.
  • Dress and act the part of a professional. Stop wearing sweats and tennis shoes to work and start dressing like an executive; after all, you are the CEO of your classroom.
  • Be proud of your profession. Frame and display your diploma, your certificate, and any other credentials you have. Doctors and lawyers have brag walls; why don’t you?

After reading The First Days of School, I have found it even more important for me to read the other books I have. I started a text on balanced literacy and have already rediscovered a passion for two core theories relevant to this practice. I want to get my hands on other books and I want to subscribe to journals. I told my wife that I will subscribe to a professional journal the day I receive an offer to teach full-time. (I would subscribe now, but finances are a bit tight when relying upon as-needed work.)

So, what about the title of the book? What should teachers do on the first day of school? Interestingly, the beginning of the book ties in well with the conclusion. Teachers need to be professionals from day one. If I am the Chief Executive Officer, it mean that I am expected to have a plan. I don’t have to be a tyrant (remember, my philosophy of education embraces egalitarianism), but I need to know what we are going to do. I need to be dressed the part, I need to be ready, and I need to be willing to take the time to get things right first. As Stephen R. Covey puts it in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, it is crucial to put first things first.

All in all, this is an excellent resource for educators who want to become professionals, whether they are still in the preparatory stages of entering the field or they are looking at the last few years before retirement. I will definitely be checking out the other books that the Wongs have written to see how else I can further my professional development.


8 responses

  1. One thought that comes to mind: If we were to compare this book with the Marine Corps’ manual “War Fighting” — exclusively on the level of principles of preparedness — would we find parallels? I think yes, and that suggests that teaching, like making war, is an essentially tactical activity. It requires one to be able to foresee and forestall and direct the actions of one’s opponents. It relies on initiative: in the moment thinking and reacting to situations that were unexpected in some way at the beginning of the day. And so on. I don’t insist on the idea that children are our enemies, but if you can accept that they are counterparts in the educational process, then we might think of them in the same way that the truly inspired military thinkers consider their enemies.

    One question though: I’m curious how you square this new notion that you are the CEO of the classroom with your earlier devotion to egalitarianism in the classroom? You can’t have it both ways, laddie.

    April 22, 2011 at 7:36 pm

  2. I have never read the Marine Corps manual, but I don’t see how or why you view students as counterparts. As I have made clear, my philosophy of education is that students are equal participants in the process.

    That being said, much of education is thinking and reacting in the moment. As much as we plan our lessons, we must be prepared to take sudden turns as the students present new ideas or new interpretations that we had not expected.

    And yes, I can have it both ways. As CEO of the classroom, I am ultimately responsible for everything that happens. But the students are participants who impact what happens. I am not a tyrant who dictates everything, but I do not operate with a democracy where every citizen has an equal vote. My egalitarian views only indicate that I believe that students can and must contribute to the process for education to truly take place. The egalitarianism is directly tied to the transactional process that I have discussed at length.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:22 pm

  3. By equal and active participants we can certainly see students as the functional equivalent of “enemy” if we see both education and war as a dynamic relationship between two forces that see to achieve an outcome. Thus students are “counterparts” because they participate in the dynamic unfolding of the interaction toward the outcome. In war, of course, the outcome will be bad for one side, so let’s not take this analogy too far.

    If you say that students are “equal participants” in the process of education, that implies that they are as free as you to act toward the outcome. But since the plan is yours, since you represent a unity (of command, let’s say), since you choose the field of battle, the mode and angle of attack, and since you are better trained to act within the moment with anything like foresight and initiative (in other words, tactically), you are clearly the one in charge. If students present new ideas or ask questions, to what extent will that detract you from your ultimate plan? Rarely, I would imagine: at least not for very long. You, yourself (the teacher), are a pawn of the district and the curriculum. Besides I doubt there’s anything an elementary student or even a college student could inject into a class that would turn the teacher’s entire plan completely on its head and thus deconstruct all his (or her) plans.

    Thus students are certainly participants who impact what happens in the classroom, but ultimately not for long, and while you may never by tyrannical per se, the teacher is the enforcer of classroom order. You are the law. Those who transgress the law must receive punishment. That must be done in order to maintain order.

    Also, from your remarks I begin to get the impression that students who “must contribute” are less equal than you think. What if they do not desire to contribute? What if they do not have the capacity to contribute? What if their contributions are mere distractions? What if they use contributions to gain favor or attention, rather than in the spirit of mutual learning?

    Your enemy on this field of battle is a weak, disjointed crowd of ninnies who don’t know what they want. They have to be guided, led, corralled, chastised, tempted, sometimes even forced to comply. And by forced I don’t mean physically, obviously. But I don’t think you can decently deny that a teacher has power and will use it to get results.

    In fact, I think Sun Tzu’s Art of War should be required reading (parts of it anyway) for teachers, if only to get a better sense of how to manipulate an opponent to comply without actually using force.

    April 23, 2011 at 10:54 am

    • Quite simply, my educational philosophy is rooted in an ideal. It is a hope that may not always see fruition, but it is what I aim for. I use Elbert Hubbard’s quote as my guiding purpose: to enable my students to get by without me. Just because my students and I will not always see eye-to-eye does not mean that I am not going to try to lead them to them point of actively participating in their own education.

      I don’t want a room full of ninnies. I want a room full of boys and girls who are constantly challenging me to rethink what I do and why I do it, just as I challenge them to do the same. But if I go into work believing that each student, or all of them as a group, is against me, then I have already failed.

      April 23, 2011 at 10:59 am

  4. Addendum:

    As I contemplate my own experience with corporal punishment in the school system, I confess that it may have seemed to an outsider like my three swats from Ms. Schaeffer’s bread board deterred me from beating up J. L. on the playground, but in reality I think my fisticuffs deterred him from stealing my frisbee again, which removed my motivation for pounding, in turn removing Ms. S’s motivation for pounding me.

    The pounding she gave me, however, did not deter me from being the king of spit wad fights and the classroom’s biggest supplier of black market rubber bands. I must conclude, therefore, that physical force neither deterred me from poor behavior, nor encouraged me to get on board with her plans for my further enlightenment.

    In fact, the two most vivid memories of all her 6th-grade science lessons were the sound of her fat thighs in nylons rubbing together as she walked among the rows during tests, and a fly urinating on my science book while I was supposed to be copying and answering questions from the back of the chapter. I was a wild and willful and barbaric creature who wanted nothing more than to make my friends laugh and play kickball, and maybe kiss P. M. on the lips–the very height of my debauchery. Learning as such interested me very little, so far as I recall. I doubt I was exceptional in that regard.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:07 am

  5. Teachers have changed considerably in the past 40 years. Education philosophy has changed, and the way teachers work with their students have also changed. I have worked with many students who are eager to learn, and it is mostly because they have been exposed to a school system that does not hinder their education.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:10 am

  6. I have no desire to convince you to give up your ideals. Your Hubbardian ideal is fine. Reality, however, should temper your ideals as you apply them to it. By all means lead your students, teach them to participate in their own education, help them see the light. You will fail repeatedly, but trying makes you noble and gives you additional insight into how to do it better the next time. Like it or not, you will get roomful after roomful of ninnies during the course of your career. The world is full of little ninnies who need shaping and polishing. It is how you leave them that counts, not how you find them.

    Here again, I see parallels with the concept of enemy. The idea of enemy is not simply one who “is against me”–it is deeper than that. The great soldiers of history sometimes write of loving their enemies, pondering them, learning from them, even as they seek to annihilate them. You are, as a teacher, annihilating the ninny in the child you teach. In a very real sense, the soldier and his enemy are locked in an embrace. They are not against each other, they are engaged with each other in a contest. That is true for the teacher and the student, as well. You can certainly shape your enemy by your actions. You can make him do what you want by setting up circumstances in which he will act as you wish. You hold the keys to the environment in which your ninny-enemy will act, because the battlefield is chosen by you. Your room full of engaged students represents the product of your control over their actions more than it suggests their purposeful engagement in their own education.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:21 am

  7. Yes, times have changed. Ms. S. was a beast, even in her own time. She ruled that double-prefab classroom like it was her own kingdom, and pity the poor little sod who got in her way. I’m still rather surprised she swatted me for beating up J. L. because she hated that kid and made him put his desk all the way at the back of the room because he smelled. She made him run laps every recess it seemed.

    And I am sure you have many bright, talented students. But I doubt the school system can take much credit for that, except that it stayed out of the way and didn’t succeed in dampening that young enthusiasm.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:25 am

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