2018 Keynote: Marlena Gross-Taylor

MGTWe are super excited to announce our keynote for our 2018 conference. Marlena Gross-Taylor will join IMLA in Idaho Falls, Idaho on February 16-17, 2018 to help “Shape the Future”. You may know her from her work as the founder of EduGladiators, a movement dedicated to empower educators to emphasize what is best for kids. Check our their newest podcast HERE.

“Marlena Gross-Taylor is a dedicated and successful EdLeader with a proven track record of improving educational and operational performance through vision, strategic planning, leadership, and team building. A Nashville transplant originally from southern Louisiana, Marlena’s educational experience spans several states allowing her to have served K-12 students in both rural and urban districts. She has been recognized as a middle school master teacher and innovative administrator at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Because of her sound knowledge of both elementary and secondary education, Marlena has broad-based experience creating and implementing dynamic interactive programs to attain district goals while leveraging her flexibility, resourcefulness, and organizational and interpersonal skills to foster learning through a positive, encouraging environment.” Full Article Here.

Don’t Just Survive: Thrive During Parent/Teacher Conferences

It is no secret that many teachers dread Parent/Teacher Conferences, either from having toPT Conferences stay late after teaching for a full day,the anxiety and panic about talking with difficult parents about their students’ progress in your class, or somewhere in-between. Sadly there are teachers in our profession that look forward to Parent/Teacher Conferences because they know that few parents will show up and it will give them time to catch up on grading. We need to change our mindset and truly look at conferences as an opportunity to engage parents and assure them of our primary purpose—caring about their kids.

Communicate Early

We all know that the best practice in communicating with parents is to contact them early with a positive message. You do not want your first contact to be informing them of misbehavior or poor academic performance. Likewise, you definitely don’t want your first contact with them to be at conferences.

Find a way to set a baseline for communication and let them know that you care about their students’ success, not just their misbehaviors. If you haven’t, it’s not the end of the world. You will just need to be mindful of how you approach the situation.

Invite Parents

Yes, we notify parents at all levels—recorded messages from the office, website, reader board, teacher calendars, student agendas, etc. Don’t assume that they know about conferences. And perhaps more importantly, don’t let them assume that you don’t care whether they show up or not. Every year teachers say: “The parents I needed to talk to didn’t come.”

We act shocked that they didn’t come to Meet the Teacher or Back to School Night, and then they didn’t show up to conferences. If we really need to talk to them, let them know that we are looking forward to seeing them. If they choose not to show, that is on them. They can’t say we didn’t give them a personal invite.

Ask Their Names. Use Them.

Engaging with parents as team members with equal vested interest in students’ success is an important strategy. Introduce yourself. Shake their hand. Ask their name. It’s the personal connection that will help you enlist their help if you ever need it. As a general rule, I try to use first names as often as possible. When I first meet parents, either in person or via phone, I make every attempt to use their first name at least twice, if not three times. Showing you care about them as a person and not just a random parent helps them feel like they belong and that you value their input as parents. It is also more likely that they will give you the benefit of the doubt when they have concerns and approach you as a professional that wants to work with them, rather than an adversary they have to battle against.

Save the Grade

Chances are, parents have already seen the grade on the report they received when they walked through the door. We are not graders—assigning grades. We are teachers—teaching kids. Focus on the students and fostering a relationship focused on them. The rest will fall into place. Wait to talk about the letter grade, good or bad, until later in the conference (see below). Parents may bring it up immediately: “I see Suzie has an F. What is going on?” Do your best to deflect with respect until you can say the things you need to say (also see below). There is a time and a place in the conference to talk about the grade. Do your best to stick to your agenda, not the parents’.

Use Student Samples

Nothing is as powerful as showing the parents how their kids are doing in their own words. It takes leadership, time, and planning to effectively use student-led conferences as an entire school. However, every teacher can use student samples of work to share with parents the successes and struggles students are exhibiting in class. Something simple as a sample of their work in class or even a basic reflection sheet where students write a letter to their parent sharing the reason for their grade and their goals for the rest of the semester can be an eye opener for parents, particularly when students are honest about why they are struggling in class.

Gauge Your Emotions

Teaching is stressful! We know it. Unfortunately, sometimes, the parents don’t. You’ve taught all day, approaching your 12th hour in the building and you’re still sitting at a table handling difficult discussions. Your emotions will show if you aren’t mindful of how you are feeling. If you feel like you need a break emotionally, you probably do. The more tired you are, the less likely you are to catch yourself before you react negatively to a situation that may not normally get to you. Even if there is a line, you have to take care of yourself. Excuse yourself politely and assure them you will be right back.

Be conscientious of your body language and tone of voice. They can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Sit up. Lean in. Smile. Make eye contact. These simple gestures show parents that you are genuinely interested in spending the next five minutes with them talking about one of their favorite things—their student.

Be Mindful of Time

Open format conferences give parents the freedom and flexibility to visit with teachers without having to have an appointment. However, it is critical for teachers to recognize that parents at conferences are still under time constraints and we can control the pace of our own conferences. A parent that is neutral about what to expect from a conference will quickly become annoyed or frustrated if they have to wait in a line for 45 minutes before their turn to talk…and then they have to go into another line and wait again…and again…

Parent/Teacher conferences should never last more than five minutes. If you meet with a team partner, you may consider extending the time, but you should still limit the conference to no more than seven minutes. Any longer and you should schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss concerns or issues in depth.

The Five Minute Conference

Many people have scoffed at me when I tell them about effective five minute conferences. Truth is, I used to do them in three. Here is the basic format to making that time count.

First, tell them they have five minutes. If you warn them ahead of time, it makes it easier for them to pay attention to the line that is behind them as well. If you don’t start with the expectation, prepare to be held hostage by that one parent that needs individual therapy because there have never been so many issues with Johnny at school and it’s causing issues at home, etc. You give them the time constraint, and have modeled with the parents before them in line that you will hold to it, they will respect it. Remember, if they need more time, schedule a follow up meeting.

Next, use their name (see above) and thank them for coming. We tend to concentrate on the negatives and the parents that don’t care without giving credit to the ones that do. Showing genuine appreciation for the parents that do care enough about their students to come to conferences will not only help you build positive relationships, it will fill your bucket.

Then, use this three step recipe:

  1. Something you like/appreciate about their student. Find something positive to say…about EVERY student! If you can relate it to something non-academic, awesome. It shows that you know their student more than just as a body in a desk. If it is related to their performance in class, great. It gives them a preview that their child is doing well. If you aren’t sure what to say because their grade is so low or their behavior has been so rotten…find something. Even if the student is never prepared for class, but shows up on time every day. Use that… “I appreciate that Johnny is on time to class every day…”
  2. Something specific the student can improve upon. Education is about growth. It is part of our role to help students grow, not just academically, but socially and emotionally as well. Focus on the goal of improvement and not the letter grade attached to the report card. We all know that Suzie has the responsibility to complete and turn in her work, but don’t just say: “She has an F because she doesn’t turn anything in…” That places blame on Suzie and brings out the mama-bear in her mother. If Suzie needs to improve on not having missing assignments, say it. “I really need Suzie to work on turning her work in on time. It will help her be more successful in my class.” Stating what you need positively in clear terms will make it more likely that you will see improvement.
  3. Ask for help. If you clearly communicate areas for improvement, it makes perfect sense to ask the parents to help you by having discussions with their students at home. Many times, if the students know that home and school are on the same page, they will stop trying to play the one off of the other. Ask mom and dad to explicitly tell Johnny that you asked them to speak with him about your concerns and the areas that he needs to improve upon. Most parents will gladly communicate your wishes and will stay in communication with you until things improve.

Now you can share grades. Saving grades to this point in the conference shows that you care about their students as individuals, not just test scores. If there are specific things or assignments the students need to do, repeat steps 2 and 3 above. Set the action points that will help parents help their kids improve their grade.

Finally, use their name (see above…again) and thank them for coming. Let them know the best way to contact you for further questions or concerns and encourage them to connect with you.

Remember, the more proactive you can be, the better things will be in the long run. No teacher will ever look forward to a 14-hour day. But hopefully using these strategies you can understand the purpose behind conferences and use them to your advantage. Understanding the relevance will make the time worth your while…and you’ll be surprised how fast the evening goes.

Testimonial: “Changing America one life at a time

Testimonial is a regular feature of the new IMLA website.  This is where we’ll share reflections from IMLA members about what they’ve taken from our conference and implemented in their schools.

The following Testimonial comes from Phil Atkinson, 7th and 8th grade math and science teacher at Eagle Middle School.

Atkinson Phil 150I had the pleasure of attending the IMLA conference this year.  Eagle Middle hosted the conference and it was as the kids would say, “Totally Rad!”

As I watched the administration put it together, I realized how much work actually went in to pulling off such a terrific event!  I’m sure by the end of the weekend, our beloved Assistant Principal Micah Doramus, and current IMLA President-Elect, wanted to pull his hair out, but simply put, we all had a blast and appreciated his dedication and tireless efforts to blend humor, education, and comradery all into one fun-filled weekend.

I have always been impressed with the flexibility of the middle school mentality, and how quickly we can adapt to any situation with the poise and confidence of a bungee jumper.  Through tears and laughter I made it through the weekend without any mishaps.  It was really interesting to hear the alarm clock go off at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and come to my school finding as many teachers there around the coffee pot as the day before.  But, the cafeteria was alive with the buzz of interesting comments about the classes from the day before, the sharing of new ideas and stories of games and technology that could improve the learning environment in exciting ways.

I was stunned by the professionalism of my colleagues and the depth of applicable knowledge they brought to the table from around the state.  I learned how to effectively lead my students by diversifying my teaching style through numerous assessment activities.   I found intriguing ways to contribute to the individual learning styles in the classroom.  I brought several ideas back on how to effectively use STEM technology and allow students to be part of the learning process.  Most of all, listening to my peers receive recognition and awards for their amazing contributions, reminded me how fortunate and blessed I am to work in the West Ada School District.  It is full of qualified and dedicated teachers that are truly, “Changing America one life at a time.”   Thank you to all who made this conference a memorable and life changing event.

Testimonial: Go Middle School

Testimonial is a regular feature of the new IMLA website.  This is where we’ll share reflections from IMLA members about what they’ve taken from our conference and implemented in their schools.

The following Testimonial comes from Alison Stark, 7th grade language arts teacher at Eagle Middle School. Alison was awarded the IMLA Region 3A Educator of the Year Award at the 2015 “We Still Believe” Annual Conference.

Stark Alison 150This was my second time attending the Idaho Middle Level Association conference. I cannot tell you how essential it is to commune with teachers whose common goal is to meet the unique needs of middle school students. Our students are not just younger high school students, and they are not just older elementary students. That is why this professional group is so important. IMLA recognizes that teaching middle school requires educators to address content area needs and developmental needs with equal finesse. Our students require enough academic choice to exercise and experiment with their growing independence. But they also require clear expectations and consequences as they “try out” their identities on the world around them. They need to be taken seriously as much as they need to be goofy. They need to try everything and have a safe place to fail and try again. They need appropriate scaffolding and modeling of complex tasks before they are able to complete them on their own. They need the adults in their lives to be there when they need a hand and to know when to fade into the background. Teaching these ever-changing students does not always come naturally, and it is with the support of colleagues that we learn strategies for educating adolescents, motivating adolescents, and preparing adolescents for the rigors of high school. IMLA is that group that brings us together to learn how to better meet the needs of our kids. It reminds us that the grade level we teach has special demands, and that we–and our students–should be singled out and celebrated! GO MIDDLE SCHOOL!

5 Tips to Avoid Spring Break-down

Only educators truly know that the last week before Spring Break is torture for teachers. Some of it has to do with the nicer weather and the kids’ energy levels, but it’s the teachers that desperately need the break. I firmly believe that the break isn’t for the benefit of the kids, other than to keep them safe. Normally sane and rational teachers turn into monsters that live in the shadows and feast upon the souls and dreams of middle school children. Perhaps that is a little melodramatic…perhaps not.

But it is really the post-Spring Break run that can make or break you as a teacher. Veteran teachers will tell you that there is no harder stretch in education than the April/May run to the end of the year. Gone are the monthly holidays and three-day weekends to break up the stressful schedule. No more “just x more days until y”. There is only one countdown left: how many more “get-ups” before summer vacation.

It’s time to buckle up and ride this roller coaster to the end of the line. Here are five tips to help you avoid derailing:

Reset Your Expectations— A colleague of mine used to give teachers some great advice: “If it wasn’t a big deal in October, don’t make it one in April.” Coming back from Spring Break is a great opportunity to remind students of your expectations. And yes, to explicitly do so. Middle school kids are great at pushing the limits. Your sixth grader aren’t sixth graders anymore. They are seventh graders in training. Spend 20-30 minutes of instructional time covering your expectations and routines and you will see it pay off in the end run.

Look for the Positive— At this point of the year it is easy to focus on Sally’s inability to bring a pencil to class EVERY period. Or the fact that Johnny still loses his binder three times a day. Look past them and you will find joy in everyday life.

This is a great chance for you to connect with some of the students that haven’t gotten your attention for the first three-quarters of the year. Make an effort to talk to the students that are there every single day and always do what you’ve asked. There is a distinct possibility that you are their favorite teacher and you don’t even know it. Let them fill your bucket and remind you that you do make a difference.

Don’t Forget the Parents— Just like spring can make kids and teachers twitchy, parents often suffer from the same symptoms. And if they go untreated, their anxiety grows until they lash out. Be proactive in communicating with parents. Yes, they should know how to check grades on the student portal. Yes, they should know where to find information about your homework on your classroom website. But some still don’t.

Worse, are the ones that have just woken up from a six month coma to see that their beautiful, perfect, innocent angel has a D or F in every class. All of a sudden their child is on fire and screaming at you is the only way to douse the flames. Send parents a quick update email about how to help their child through the last quarter of school. Assure them that you do actually care about their child. Ten minutes of preventive work is better than ten nasty emails and an ugly meeting that turns into a lose/lose situation for the student.

Family First— As educators we are notorious for sacrificing for our students. By the time you come home from work and remember that you have children of your own that you have neglected in preparing for the week’s lessons enough to fix them a meal that consists of something more than mac n’ cheese and hotdogs, you then remember you have a spouse that you haven’t seen awake since Spring Break. Stack in the laundry, yard work, the class you needed to take for recertification, etc. it is easy to put your family relationships at the bottom of a long list.

Find ways to balance family time:

  1. Dedicate one night a week for date-night with your spouse. It is important that you have that time to stay grounded in your relationship.
  2. Spend time with your kids during the daylight hours. Even if it is taking them to their spring sports practices, being present matters. Grading papers can wait until they’re in bed.
  3. Don’t stay at work past 5pm. Regardless, if you cook dinner or not, it is important to eat as a family. Talk with your kids and spouse about their day.

Find Time for Sunshine— The simple cure for being stuck in a classroom all day throughout the winter? SUNSHINE!! Forget the recent studies on Vitamin D deficiency. We all know that sunshine and fresh air can do wonders to keep us healthy and positive. Spring in Idaho can be a challenge—wind, rain, snow, sun, etc. Take advantage of the sunshine to relax in your own way: training for your next 5k, watching your kids’ baseball games, reading a book on the deck with your beverage of choice, etc.

Soak up the sunshine and before you know it summer will be upon you. And then “vacation” can start. But that’s another article.

Join the Discussion!

writers wantedWith the conclusion of the 2015 Annual Conference, we are setting our sights back to reaching out to teachers and administrators via our website and social media outlets. We are currently looking for contributors to participate in writing articles and/or submitting media from the middle level across Idaho. If you are interested, please contact Micah Doramus or Kevin Murphy for more information on how you can let your voice be heard.

We Still Believe!

IMLA circle blackThis We Believe has been the framework for the development of middle school philosophy since its original publication in 1982. Members of the education community collaborated in the identification of four essential attributes and sixteen characteristics necessary for effective middle level education. Now, over thirty years later, those attributes and characteristics remain a core tenet of the middle level movement. However, the middle level in Idaho is in crisis and some characteristics face extinction.

Budget cuts, spending freezes, and changing leadership have taken a dramatic and painful toll on the quality of middle level education in Idaho. As money has become scarce, districts have had to cut FTE allotments, increasing class sizes while simultaneously damaging the ability of buildings to continue to function with middle level philosophy in mind. Funding for field trips, athletics, or other extra-curricular activities has been slashed, limiting the number of opportunities for children without imposing a burden on individual families to make up the difference.

While we have all felt the shift and the pinch from thinner budgets, we do not have to sacrifice the core tenants of middle level philosophy. The theme for the 2015 IMLA Annual Conference, to be held at the end of February, is “We Still Believe.”

We Still Believe—in understanding the physiological, psychological and social/emotional developmental needs of our students as the primary focus in the decision-making process.

We Still Believe—that every child can learn, regardless of their ability level, and that individual expectations should  emphasize high standards focused on growth and improvement.

We Still Believe—in providing students with the basic skills and knowledge necessary to become a productive member of their community.

We Still Believe—that every child deserves advocacy to ensure they get fair and equal access to a meaningful, challenging, and relevant learning experience.

With courage it is possible for us to protect the attributes and characteristics that have guided us for the past thirty years. Even if your team is unable to join us at the 2015 conference it is not too late to get involved:

  • Follow us on Twitter: @idahomiddle
  • Join the conference live Twitter feed: #imla2015
  • Like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/idahomiddle
  • Talk with a board member about how you can get involved in your local area.
  • Encourage your building and district leadership to sign up for membership to the Idaho Middle Level Association for the 2015-16 school year and make plans to attend our conference next year.

Tweet, Tweet

twitter1Bring your mobile devices and dust off your @Twitter handle—get ready to participate live during the 2015 IMLA Annual Conference. We are excited to offer an opportunity for you to live tweet your experience throughout the conference with your friends and colleagues across the state and nation that are unable to attend. Want to know what other attendees are experiencing? We will be projecting a running feed of the #imla2015 tag in the general session for you to keep up with the back channel discussion. Want to keep up with IMLA on Twitter? Follow us @idahomiddle.

‘Tis the Season

xmas-countdown-2011Everywhere I look in the hallways I see candy canes, Santa hats, and, for the most part…smiles. Students and teachers are focusing on getting through the last week before the holiday break. Secret Santas are delivering their goodies. Boys and girls are exchanging stuffed animals and chocolates. And BFFs are giving each other friendship jewelry. Overall there is a buzz of excitement and anticipation, if not for Christmas, at least for the holiday break from school.

But if you look closely, you will see a different layer of holiday emotions. Their reasons may vary, but the fact remains: Christmas = stress and anxiety, fear and guilt. Stress of worrying about mom and dad not being able to pay for the heating bill, let alone presents. Anxiety about being away from their friends and the only stable adults in their lives for two solid weeks. Fear of having to deal with abusive parents or broken homes. Guilt from wanting things to fit in with their friends, knowing that their parents really couldn’t afford the iPod they just bought them for Christmas. Not all Christmas stories are filled with joy, and not all homes are filled with love and safety for the holiday season.

Every teacher has those two or three kids that they take home with them every night. We discuss them with our significant others and share our worries, wishing we could do more. There are kids in each of our classrooms that dread the holiday break. The last message we want to send is that as the adults, we are just ready for a break from kids and that we do care about those students that have a less than ideal home situation. It is important that we let them know that we love them and that we are excited about seeing them in January when we return.

Here are three things you can do to send those students off with a sense of the true spirit of Christmas:

Old School Christmas Movie—I know it sounds cheesy, but trust me. Your local all-in-one department/grocery store carries discounted copies of holiday favorites on DVD. As much as they would never admit it in front of their friends, kids love a good holiday classic: Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, or It’s a Wonderful Life will suck them into the magic of the season. Especially with a personal recommendation from you.

Holiday Playlist— Give the gift of music. In the olden days we used to burn CDs. Now it is better to download your favorite music onto a USB flash drive. Include your favorite holiday music along with your favorite current hits that inspire positive choices. A little “Rocking around the Christmas Tree” combined with some “Brave” by Sarah Bareilles can give students just the right amount of lyrical balance to positive.

Personalized Christmas Card—Handwriting a note to a student offering advice, praise, and admiration can have a profound impact on adolescent students. Take a moment to personalize a card for those students that you know need a pick-me-up headed into the holiday break. Your favorite Dr. Seuss quote and a Merry Christmas message will give them something tangible to set on their dresser to help them if things get rough.